Balancing Work and Cancer Caregiving: An Expert Perspective

March 20, 2024
Joanna Fawzy Doran, Esq.

Joanna Doran is a cancer rights attorney, author, speaker, and CEO of Triage Cancer. Triage Cancer is a national nonprofit organization that provides free education on the legal and practical issues that may impact people diagnosed with cancer and their caregivers through events, materials, and resources.

This post is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.

People diagnosed with cancer often face employment challenges while working through treatment, taking time off, or returning to the workplace. But cancer caregivers can often face similar challenges. Some caregivers may face potential workplace discrimination as they try to balance their time and energy between caregiving and work responsibilities. And, caregivers who take extended periods of time off from work may face issues getting back into the workforce.

However, there are some legal protections and cancer community resources available in the United States to help caregivers better navigate work and caregiving. Here’s what to know.

How federal and state employment laws impact cancer caregivers

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides eligible cancer survivors with protection against discrimination in the workplace and access to reasonable accommodations at work. Eligible caregivers are also entitled to protection against discrimination in the workplace, but they are not entitled to reasonable accommodations. However, even when a caregiver is not legally entitled to an accommodation, such as attending meetings virtually or modifying their work hours, an employer might still be willing to work something out to help an employee. 

Most states have laws similar to the ADA, but some offer more protections than others. For example, the state law may cover employers with fewer employees than the ADA does. Because of this, it is important that caregivers look at both their federal protections and their state laws.

Keep in mind that the law only provides a minimum of what employers must provide to caregivers, and many employers offer benefits above and beyond what the law requires. Therefore, caregivers should ask their employers what benefits might be available to them as they navigate cancer caregiving.

Taking time off work during cancer caregiving

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows employees to take time off from work because of their own serious medical condition; to care for a spouse, a parent, or a child; or for certain military family leave. FMLA applies to companies with 50 or more employees. The FMLA provides caregivers up to 12 weeks per year to care for a family member who has a serious medical condition, such as cancer. The FMLA can help caregivers balance job responsibilities and time spent caregiving, but people are only able to take time off if they are caring for a spouse, a parent, or a child. The law does not include parents-in-law, grandparents, siblings, aunts, or uncles.

While taking leave, an employee’s job and their employer-sponsored health insurance coverage are protected.

Some states have a state law that is similar to the FMLA. A few states have an expanded definition of whom you can care for, some have an expanded definition of what you can take leave for, and some cover employers with fewer than 50 employees. Caregivers should make sure to understand the federal laws, state laws, and their employer’s policies that may apply to their situation.

Getting financial help for caregiving

Time off work taken under the FMLA is unpaid. As a result, many caregivers need to find a way to replace their lost wages. While disability insurance might be an option for cancer survivors, there are only a few states that offer similar programs for caregivers.

In addition, some state Medicaid programs provide eligible cancer survivors with in-home assistance to help with daily activities. Daily activities can include getting dressed, grocery shopping, cooking, and transportation to medical appointments. These programs have different names in each state, such as In-Home Support Services. Some states allow an individual’s family member to provide the in-home assistance and get paid by the program. Contact your Medicaid program to see if this is an option in your state.

Other practical issues during cancer caregiving

For caregivers who are trying to balance work and their caregiving responsibilities, other daily activities, such as cooking meals, housekeeping, and taking the kids to school, can become more challenging. These are all tasks that family members and friends may be able to help with, if you ask. There are also resources and online tools to help. For example, CaringBridge has tools where friends and family can sign up to deliver meals, order groceries, or help with other activities. Cleaning for a Reason, meanwhile, is a free housekeeping service for people undergoing cancer treatment.

Because caregiving can take an emotional toll, there are also emotional support resources available for caregivers. For instance, Imerman Angels offers one-on-one support from fellow caregivers, and Cancer Support Community has online and in-person support resources for caregivers. You can talk with the health care team about local support resources that may be available to caregivers.

If you are struggling with managing work and caring for a loved one with cancer, remember you are not alone. Talk with a member of the health care team about what help and resources might be available to you.

The author has no relationships relevant to this content to disclose.

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