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Work and Career

Reviewed by: Joanna L. Fawzy Morales, Esq

Updated January 29, 2013

Your job and career path may be important aspects of your life, for financial and personal reasons. It’s normal to worry about how breast cancer diagnosis and treatment might affect your ability to work, earn a living and progress in your career goals.

Working through treatment or taking time off and then returning to your job or starting a new job can have many benefits, including:

  • Restoring a feeling of normalcy
  • Helping you earn needed income
  • Distracting you from medical issues
  • Maintaining your social and professional contacts
  • Helping you keep health insurance coverage
  • Sustaining your career involvement

Whether you are starting out, building a career or have been with your employer for years, you can plan an approach to dealing with job concerns that’s right for you. 

Sharing Information About Your Breast Cancer Diagnosis at Work

You do not have to tell your employer about your diagnosis. You are required to disclose it only if you are asking for medical leave (time off) or accommodation at work—such as sitting instead of standing, or a schedule change. You might not even need to disclose your exact diagnosis if you provide enough information about your condition to show medical eligibility. 

If you do decide to share your information, you may decide to tell your supervisor or a human resources representative. Both are required by law to keep your health information private. They can tell you about your options for time off to have therapy or to recuperate.

Your other co-workers are not required to protect your privacy, so be cautious in sharing your information. Some colleagues can be wonderfully supportive, but others might not be. If co-workers will take over some of your duties, keep the details focused on your anticipated schedule. 

Your work may involve contact with customers, clients, patients or students. You do not have to tell them any specifics about your diagnosis or treatment. If you plan to take time off, consider letting them know how their needs will be met during your absence.    

Working Through Breast Cancer Treatment

Talk with your doctor about what to expect from surgery, chemotherapy and other treatments. Ask, what effects could treatment have on my job duties? Will I have trouble if I need to stand, lift, drive, work with young children, provide medical care or travel often? Some other questions to consider: 

  • May I change my work schedule, if needed?
  • Is it possible to plan chemotherapy to fit my work schedule and allow recovery time?
    • You might feel fine on the day of treatment and worse on the second or third day, while others might have a different experience. Find out if your work will offer you flexibility

Other ideas:

  • Take breaks at work. The pace you kept before might be too much right now
  • Prepare for side effects and how to handle them
  • Don’t force yourself to work when you feel ill. If you work poorly, your employer could make employment decisions based on how you perform at work. It also may make it harder for you to make a disability claim later
  • If you are self-employed, consider sharing or sub-contracting work  

Taking Time Off, Then Returning to Work

If you decide to disclose your medical needs to your employer, ask for details of how to request time off. Let your employer know you want to keep working and will return as soon as you are able. Then:

  • Get your healthcare team’s support in documenting your need for time off
  • Determine how much time you will need and can get. Learn what your rights are about these questions:
    • Will my time off be paid or unpaid?
      • Do I have any sick time available?
      • Is disability pay available?
      • Will my job be held for me?
      • Will I lose my seniority or job level rating?
      • Will co-workers take over my job duties? Should I train them?
      • Will my health insurance coverage continue? 

Re-entering work after an absence can be challenging. Ask co-workers you trust to help you. Have them explain new systems or procedures established while you were away. If possible, go in for a few partial days before getting back to full time. This helps you assess your strength and adjust to any changes in the environment.

Keeping Career Goals on Track 

During your leave, consider staying in touch with co-workers, projects and organizational changes. Find out your organization’s leave policies regarding not working during leave, and make sure your actions don’t violate them. 

You don’t have to push yourself—you are already coping with so much—but if you want, do some or a few of these things:

  • Call your colleagues to catch up briefly or use email
  • Ask your boss if you can participate in meetings from time to time via software or conference equipment
  • Read employee news on your company website and publications
  • Maintain professional connections by email or through LinkedIn 
  • Attend networking events online or in person 

Looking for a New Job 

If you left your job during treatment, or if you decide after treatment that you want a change, consider revising your resume to focus on your skills rather than time periods worked. No matter what, practice what to say if your resume has long time gaps. It is common for prospective employers to ask about them. Other tips:

  • Tell those who know the quality of your work that you’re looking for a job
  • Remember, a prospective employer should not ask you about your health during a job interview or on a job application
  • The law also governs what you may be asked about your health once a job is offered and when you become an employee
  • Be ready with forward-looking answers for your interview. This would be true, whether you had cancer or not  

Legal Rights About Working

State and federal laws protect many workers affected by health conditions such as breast cancer that may require job absences or adjustments. These laws include:

  • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
    • Provides unpaid leave and continuation of group health insurance for up to 12 weeks per 12-month period
    • Given for serious medical reasons that make an employee unable to perform job functions
    • Also applies to caregivers of family members with serious health conditions
    • Can be used in small increments of time, as needed, such as a half-day to attend a doctor’s appointment
    • Applies to employers with 50 or more workers, government agencies, elementary and secondary schools, and others
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
    • Protects individuals with a disability against workplace discrimination
      • Cancer can be a disability when the disease or its side effects substantially limit your major life activities
      • Requires your employer to provide eligible employees with “reasonable accommodations,” which may include changing work schedules, workplace policies or your physical work space 

Keep notes and records of any discussions you have with your employer or government agency about job issues. For more help, visit our Recommended Resources section.

This article was supported by Cooperative Agreement Number DP11-1111 from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

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