Going to Work During and After Cancer

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2019

Having cancer does not necessarily mean you will stop working. You might take time off for appointments, treatments, or extra rest. You might work as much as possible or take a leave of absence and return later.

There are benefits to working even when you have cancer. Going to work can help you feel more normal, and remind you that life goes on. Work can also provide important financial support, including health insurance benefits. This article tells you about working while you have cancer and returning to work after treatment.

Working when you have cancer

A United States law called the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires private employers with 15 or more employees and state or local government employers to make "reasonable accommodations" for workers who need them. These accommodations are things that allow you to do your job. For example, you might need to stop working around food if you have nausea during treatment. Or you might need a flexible schedule so you can go to appointments.

Your health care team can help

Your health care team might be able to help you keep working. For example, your doctor might prescribe anti-nausea medication. Or you might schedule treatments before your days off, so you can rest without missing work.

Do I need to share information?

You might not want to tell your employer or coworkers about your cancer. You do not have to, unless you are asking for help under the ADA or a state law. In that case, you might need to share some health information with your employer or the human resources department.

If you need legal help

If your cancer or treatment keeps you from working, talk with your doctor and employer. If your employer is not willing to help you make adjustments, you might want to talk with someone who knows the laws in your area. The National Cancer Legal Services Network has a list of resources for advice and help.

Adjusting physically to work

Your body may respond differently to normal activities when you have cancer or are having treatment. It might also need several months or longer to recover after treatment. At times, you might feel tired, have pain or difficulty thinking and remembering things, or have other treatment side effects. Here are some things you can do to help.

  • Take short breaks during your day or your shift to keep your energy up

  • Use lists and alarms to remember your meetings or tasks

  • Talk with your manager about any concerns

Side effects of cancer treatment are considered disabilities under the ADA, so your employer must provide reasonable accommodations. These can include:

  • Giving you breaks to take medication, see a doctor, or rest

  • Having you do a job that fits your new hours or abilities better

  • Giving you access to counseling through an employee assistance program

Adjusting to the work environment

Other workers might know about your cancer, support you, and be happy when you come back. Or they might not know or understand. Respond to any comments and concerns in a simple, positive way. For example, you can say, “I’ll be going to treatment on Fridays, but I’m working with our supervisor to make sure my work is taken care of.” Or, “I had treatment for a tumor, but I’m okay now.”

If your coworkers give you too much attention or sympathy, you might feel uncomfortable. It is okay to tell them you would rather not answer questions or have a lot of attention right now.

Getting ready to go back to work

When your doctor says you are ready to go back to work, you might feel excited and overwhelmed. Here are some things that might make it easier:

  • Know your workplace rights and responsibilities. This will help you plan your return and face any challenges. The websites below have important information.

  • Find out if your employer has an official "return to work" or disability management program. Also ask about:

    • Flexible work options, such as working different hours

    • Job accommodations you may need

    • Your insurance and benefits

  • Decide what to tell your coworkers and how. You might want to have private conversations with a few close friends at work. Or you might want to tell everyone at the same time, such as during a meeting.

Going back to work can be a challenge, even when you are prepared. You might want to talk with a counselor or join a support group to learn from the experiences of other cancer survivors.

When you cannot go back to work

Cancer and treatment can change your plans for going back to work. You might not have the energy to work after treatment. You might have a physical disability or problems with thinking and memory. Or, you might simply decide your stressful job is not worth it. Stopping work for any reason is a big change that affects your financial security and well-being.

Disability and insurance if you stop working

Leaving a job often means leaving reliable income and possibly health insurance. You can get health insurance through federal programs like COBRA and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplaces. COBRA extends your employer’s health insurance for a short time, usually 18 months and not more than 36 months. However, this can be expensive and you will have to pay out of pocket. You can sign up for ACA insurance if you have a life change or qualify for Medicaid. Check with your health care team to make sure changing insurances will not affect your treatment.

Disability insurance might also help. If you bought this type of insurance before you had cancer, you can receive income for a long time or for life. There is usually a waiting period of 1 to 6 months before you get benefits. And you likely cannot buy disability insurance after you have cancer.

You might qualify for federal Social Security programs like Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits. SSI provides financial support for some blind or disabled adults and children. The SSDI program, or Social Security Disability, is:

  • Available to adults with limited income and a medical condition that keeps you from working for at least 1 year.

  • Available after at least 5 months of living with the disability.

  • Available as long as you cannot work.

You might have to pay taxes on your SSD income if you earn more than a certain amount each year.

Some nonprofit organizations offer financial assistance to people with cancer.

Things to do if you cannot work

Not having a job can be as difficult as not having enough money. Many people make friends and socialize at work, and you might miss this part of working. Stopping work is a major life change, especially when you are a young adult. Here are some people to talk to:

  • Friends and family, who can share new or favorite social activities with you.

  • A social worker from your medical practice or hospital treatment center, who can help you find counseling, support groups, and ways to cope.

  • Coworkers or employers who are close to you, if you are comfortable talking about your cancer with them.

You might also want to spend time on a personal passion, learn a new skill or hobby, or volunteer. Local city or county centers frequently offer adult education classes and volunteer positions where you can build new schedules and relationships.

Cancer-related groups offer support and a way to give back. You can also find lots of social activities and clubs online, which can lead you to new hobbies and people.

Support is available if you need or decide to stop work after treatment. This new path can be challenging but could also be full of opportunity.

Related Resources

3 Tips for Finding a New Job After Cancer

Resources for Young Adults With Cancer

When Cancer Leads to Workplace Discrimination

More Information

Cancer and Careers: Your Legal Rights in the Workplace

Job Accommodation Network

Triage Cancer: Quick Guide to Reasonable Accommodations After a Cancer Diagnosis (PDF) and Resources by Location