Breast Cancer and the Workplace

Updated 
August 31, 2015

Your job and your career path may be important aspects of your life, for financial and personal reasons. After you have finished treatment and are ready to return to the workforce, it’s normal to worry how your cancer history may affect your ability to work, earn a living and progress toward your career goals.

Returning to your job after treatment 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
  • Supporting your career involvement

But re-entering the workforce after an absence can be challenging. It may take some time to get back to your regular work schedule.

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 measure your strength and adjust to any changes in the environment.

Sharing Information About Your Diagnosis at Work

You may face some challenges and have questions about how and when to talk about your breast cancer experience in the workplace. Whether you are just 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. 

At work, you have a right to privacy. You don’t have to give out personal information if you don’t want to. Since you may see your co-workers every day, carefully consider who, if anyone, you want to tell about your diagnosisinfo-icon. Your co-workers are not required to protect your privacy, so be cautious in sharing your information. Decide if sharing the news may disrupt your day-to-day work life or expand your support network.

If you need an accommodation at work such as a change in your work hours, you will be required to disclose some information to your human resources representative, but it may not require that you share your cancer diagnosis. You may also decide to tell your supervisor about your medical conditioninfo-icon. Both are required by law to keep your health information private, but realize that they may need to share some information up the chain of command.

Your Rights and Legal Protections in the Workplace

You have legal rights in the workplace and should be given equal opportunities. Hiring and promotion should depend on your abilities and qualifications. You can’t be fired based on your medical conditioninfo-icon.

If you work for a private employer with 15 or more employees, and you are eligible, you may ask for “reasonable accommodations” under the Americans with Disabilities Act such as shortened hours, modified work schedules or reassignment to a vacant position. State or local laws may also protect you.

You may also be able to move to a part-time schedule for a limited time or take off a few days a week through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) without the threat of losing your job or health insurance benefits. Not all employees are covered under these laws; it depends on the size of your employer and other factors. For more information about these laws and the state laws and resources that may be useful to you, visit Triage Cancer for more information.

Employee Assistance Programs can help you deal with personal problems that may affect your job performance, such as emotional and financial concerns.

Talk to your human resources representative to find out what your options are and if benefits are available. You can also visit the Job Accommodation Network for more information.

Looking for a New Job

If you left your job during treatment, or if you decide after treatment that you want a career change, consider revising your resume to focus on your skills rather than time periods worked. For information about the job search process, visit Cancer and Careers for more information. No matter what, practice what to say if your resume has long time gaps. It is common for prospectiveinfo-icon employers to ask about them. Other tips:

  • Tell those who know the quality of your work that you’re looking for a job.
  • A prospective employer should not ask you about your medical history during a job interview or on a job application. The employer only has a right to know if you are qualified to do the job.
  • If asked about your employment gap, keep it simple. For example, “I had a medical issue and took care of it, and now I’m ready to get back to work.”
  • 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.