When Cancer Leads to Workplace Discrimination

February 16, 2017
Nicole Van Hoey, PharmD

A cancer diagnosis can affect a person’s work life to different degrees. Your decisions about working during and after cancer treatment depend on your financial resources, the type of work you do, and the demands of your treatment and recovery. Many people are able to continue working during cancer treatment. Others leave their jobs and then return after active cancer treatment ends.

People who work during treatment or return to work after treatment may encounter obvious or subtle workplace discrimination. share on twitter For example, some employers and colleagues may assume that a person will be less productive or perform below the company's expectations. Other examples of discriminatory actions include:

  • Being demoted without a clear reason

  • Being overlooked for new positions

  • Not receiving a promotion that you have earned

  • Finding a lack of flexibility when you request time off for medical appointments

  • Being left out of training or decision-making opportunities when you use sick leave for scheduled medical appointments

Legal protections against discrimination

In the United States, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) and many regulations protect your right to work and to be treated fairly at work even if you have cancer. To have these legal protections, you must tell your employer about your cancer diagnosis. These protections include:

  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Passed in 1990, the ADA protects employees from unfair treatment at work because of a current, perceived, or past disability. The law requires employers to reasonably accommodate employees with disabilities. Examples for people with cancer include flexible time off for cancer treatments or physical accommodations like desks that adjust for wheelchair access. Learn more at ADA.gov.

  • Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The 1993 FMLA provides many people up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for medical and family reasons. People who take such leave still receive their benefits and cannot lose their jobs while they are out. FMLA applies to public agencies, public and private schools, and companies with more than 50 employees. People with cancer or their caregivers may take leave using FMLA. Learn more at the U.S. Department of Labor’s website.

  • Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). Created in 2008, GINA ensured that a person’s genetic information, like cancer-related genetic mutations, cannot be requested or used by insurers or employers to make changes to health coverage or to jobs and work duties. Because of GINA, your genetic counseling discussions and cancer-related gene tests remain private, even if you do not have cancer. Learn more at the National Institutes of Health’s website.

Preventing workplace discrimination

Any discrimination you may experience as a person diagnosed with cancer is not your fault, but there are steps you can take to try to prevent discrimination. Some coworkers may feel anxiety about their job responsibilities changing or increasing during your cancer journey. Managers may be unsure how to discuss your health, sick leave requests, or meeting absences. Some ways to reassure coworkers and remain prepared for your responsibilities are to:

  • Join a support group to get advice and tips from other cancer survivors

  • Refresh your job skills by reviewing past work assignments or attending classes or workshops

  • Talk with your employer as early as possible about time away from work that’s needed for your medical appointments

  • Provide a doctor’s letter to support your ability to work

Addressing workplace discrimination

If you do experience possible job discrimination, your first step should be to meet with your employer’s human resources department. Keep a record of each occurrence, including the date, time, location, people involved, and actions taken. You can also consult a legal expert to see if the incident can be classified as discrimination.

If you believe you have experienced discrimination, you have 180 days from the date of the incident to report it to the EEOC. This is called a statute of limitations. If the discrimination is a reduction in your pay based on your disability (or your sex, race, national origin, age, or religion), then the statute of limitations may be based on a different timeline. An attorney or the EEOC can provide specific legal information about your complaint.