Oncologist-approved cancer information from the American Society of Clinical Oncology
Printer Friendly
Download PDF

Going Back to Work After Cancer

After treatment for cancer, many people look forward to returning to the workforce. Working can provide opportunities to reconnect with colleagues and friends, focus on something other than cancer, get involved in interesting and challenging projects, and start regaining a normal routine and lifestyle. It is also a time of transition. You may have questions about how to talk with coworkers and employers about cancer and how to understand workplace rights and responsibilities. Some preparation before returning to work can help make this transition a little easier.

Where to start

  • Talk with your doctor, nurse, or social worker about any worries and ongoing physical, emotional, or mental limitations you may have. And ask about follow-up care plans to learn how they might affect your work schedule.
  • Set up a telephone or in-person interview with your human resources department to discuss transition plans, including flexible work options, any needed accommodations, and your insurance and benefits coverage.
  • Ask for resources and information on federal and state laws that protect workers' rights.

Family and Medical Leave Act

You have probably heard of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and used it to cover your time off during treatment. Under FMLA, an employee may take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per 12-month time period. To be eligible for FMLA benefits, an employee must work for an employer that has at least 50 employees within 75 miles. In addition, the employee must have worked for the employer for a total of 12 months and at least 1,250 hours over the previous 12 months.

FMLA does not have to be taken as 12 weeks in a row; it can be used intermittently, applying after you've returned to the workplace. For example, some people use FMLA to go back to work part time while they are regaining strength and transitioning back to their responsibilities. Some employers will require that their employees use available sick or vacation time for part or all of the 12 weeks, so check with your human resources department for information on your workplace's policies.

Other key factors in FMLA include the following:

  • Employers are required to continue your group health insurance coverage while you are on FMLA on the same terms as if you were still working.
  • You are entitled to return to your original job or to an equivalent job with equivalent pay and benefits.

Talking about cancer at work

After you discuss your return to work with your human resources department, explore whether your company offers resources to help you make the transition. For instance, you may have access to a free consultation with a qualified mental health professional through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) with whom you can confidentially discuss your adjustment back to the workplace.

You are not obligated to tell your employer or coworkers that you had cancer, unless you are requesting a workplace accommodation or you are unable to perform the normal functions of your job. However, many people decide to give coworkers or managers at least some information about their diagnosis and treatment. You may find that being open will help you reconnect with coworkers and offer you the opportunity to address misconceptions or rumors that may have circulated in your absence.

Work with your human resources department on how best to communicate the information you are comfortable sharing. You can write a letter, send an e-mail, or make an announcement at a staff meeting and offer to answer questions. Consider your work culture, your own personal style, and your need for privacy versus your need for accommodations and support. You can also ask your manager, a close coworker, or a human resources professional to help you decide if, when, and how to tell others about your cancer.

If you decide to let your coworkers know about your cancer and treatment, keep it simple; tell people what happened and what the plan is for your return and job coverage. For example, you might consider saying, “I've completed treatment for cancer. I'm currently doing well and glad to be back at work. I will be here 20 hours per week for the next four weeks and will return full time after that. In the meantime, Joe Smith will be covering Projects A and B.” Learn more about sharing your story.

Many employers and coworkers may not understand your type of cancer and treatment. Their reactions may have more to do with their past experiences or lack of experiences with cancer than with your specific situation. However, many people will likely show support and understanding. Others will be taking your lead; the more comfortable you are, the more comfortable they will be.

Tips for the transition back at work

Consider the following adjustments to make your transition smoother once you've returned to your workplace:

  • Talk with your manager and/or the human resources department about the possibility of flexible work arrangements, such as part-time hours, partial or full-time telecommuting, or job sharing.
  • Plan to take small breaks during the day to help you maintain your energy level.
  • If you find that you're having difficulty concentrating, use lists and reminders or set meeting and task alarms on your office e-mail system.
  • Set up frequent meetings with your manager to evaluate the transition and make any necessary accommodations, such as a temporary change in responsibilities if your job is physically demanding.

Don't hide your condition at the expense of jeopardizing your physical or emotional health. You are entitled to reasonable accommodations, as long as you are able to do your job. As a cancer survivor, your most important job is a healthy recovery. With the right information and support, returning to the workplace can be an important and positive step in that recovery.

More Information


Cancer and the Workplace: Dealing With Discrimination

Returning to Work after Cancer

Talking About Cancer

Additional Resources

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Questions and Answers About Cancer in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act

LIVESTRONG: Employment Law

Last Updated: February 08, 2011

© 2005-2014 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). All rights reserved worldwide.

Connect With Us: