Breast cancer and the workplace

Many people consider their work and career path to be an important part of life, for financial and personal reasons. Whether you’re working through treatment or returning to work afterwards, it’s normal to worry how your cancer history may affect your ability to work, earn a living, and progress toward your career goals.

Working during treatment or returning to work after treatment can have many benefits, including:

  • Maintaining 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 working after a cancer diagnosis can be challenging. How do you balance your physical needs with the pressures of the workplace? Can you ask for your employer to make concessions to your needs? Do you have to tell employers (or potential employers) about your diagnosis?

It’s OK to acknowledge when you feel overwhelmed or need help. Only you can decide when you feel ready for work or how much you can handle during treatment, but if you are ready and willing to work you may be able to get accommodations from your employer so you can continued to do your job despite health issues.

Discuss with your employer if it’s possible to adjust your schedule, to take time off for treatment or recovery, or if there are other ways to work around your needs. Learn what you are entitled to under the law, this may include reasonable accommodations, like a modified schedule, or protected medical leave.

Sharing information about your diagnosis at work

Many people have questions about how and when to talk about your breast cancer experience in the workplace and struggle with making those decisions. 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 diagnosis. 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 condition. 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 condition.

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.

Learn more about your legal protections at work.

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 prospective 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 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 limits what an employer may ask 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.  

Return to Financial concerns overview

Updated 
August 29, 2019