Cancer and Workplace Discrimination

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 07/2015

Listen to the Cancer.Net Podcast: Cancer and the Workplace, adapted from this content.

Many people are able to continue working during cancer treatment. Or they return to their jobs after active cancer treatment ends. Your decisions about work during and after cancer treatment depend on your financial resources, the type of work you do, and the nature of your recovery.

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

  • Being demoted without a clear reason

  • Having an earned job promotion withheld

  • Being overlooked for a new position

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

Some people are fortunate to work with respectful colleagues and supervisors. However, it is important to understand the protections for you and your employment if you feel unfairly treated because of a cancer diagnosis or treatment.

The Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC), prohibits all discrimination related to a disability, a perceived disability, and a history of disability. Employers must make reasonable accommodations in the workplace for qualified individuals with a disability. They are required to treat all employees fairly and equally and cannot ask employees personal questions other than job-related medical questions. The ADA also protects an employee whose family member has a disability.

The Job Accommodation Network provides free information about the ADA and the employability of people with disabilities.

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) protects employees when they take leave because they are ill or are caring for a spouse, child, or parent who is ill. Through the FMLA, employees receive:

  • A total of 12 weeks unpaid leave

  • Continued benefits during leave

  • The option to use vacation and sick leave during medical or family leave

The FMLA has specific requirements. For example, the employer must have more than 50 employees. And an employer does not have to hold a position open if an employee uses more than 12 weeks of leave in a year. Because states and districts operate differently, contact your local attorney general's office or an employment lawyer for more information.

The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008

The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) is another law designed to protect against medical-related discrimination. Employers cannot hire, fire, or make changes to a person’s job duties based on that person’s genetic information. Employers also cannot request or obtain a person’s or their family’s genetic information. Through GINA, insurers cannot request a person’s genetic information or use it to determine eligibility or costs.

Learn more about genetics and genetic testing.

Telling your employer about your cancer diagnosis

To receive job protection under these acts, most people must inform their employer about their cancer diagnosis. But people who are self-employed do not need to tell current or potential clients. Of course, disclosure is always a personal decision.

Handling workplace discrimination

You can file a legal claim in all cases of workplace discrimination. But consider the following steps before taking legal action:

  • Discuss the situation with your employer, the human resources department, or an employee assistance coordinator. Ask what types of reasonable accommodations they can make for your job based on your situation. These accommodations may include flexible or reduced work hours, physical adjustments to your workspace or office, or changes to your job responsibilities.

  • Consult a legal expert to identify whether the incident can be classified as discrimination.

  • Seek help from a local cancer support group and from your doctor. It can help to talk with other people who have faced similar issues.

  • Keep a detailed record of all occurrences of discrimination, including dates, times, locations, people involved, and actions taken.

If you believe you have experienced discrimination, the law requires you to report the complaint to a local EEOC office within 180 days of the incident. This is called a statute of limitations.

But if the discrimination is a reduction in pay because of sex, race, national origin, age, religion, or disability, the statute of limitations may be based on actions other than the first incident. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 states that discrimination occurs each time a person is affected by a discriminatory pay decision or action. This includes when the decision is made or action begins and each time the payment occurs. Contact an attorney or the EEOC for specific legal information for your complaint.

Preventing workplace discrimination

When returning to work after cancer treatment, consider taking the following steps to prevent workplace discrimination:

  • Catch up on new projects or developments that occurred while you were gone.

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

  • Seek professional counseling about going back to work, or join a support group to get advice and tips from other cancer survivors.

  • Ask your doctor to draft a letter stating your ability to return to work.

If you are submitting a resume for a job, consider organizing your accomplishments by category (such as project management) rather than by dates of employment. This approach takes the focus off a gap between jobs. When asked about an employment gap, have a short, positive answer prepared. For example, “I wasn’t working for health reasons. But that is behind me, and I am ready to work.” You are not required to talk about your cancer diagnosis or treatment in a job interview.

By talking with employers about the challenges and opportunities facing cancer survivors, you can help reduce workplace discrimination for others.

More Information

Going Back to Work After Cancer

Finding a Job After Cancer

Additional Resources

Cancer and Careers

LIVESTRONG: Employment Issues