Metastatic breast cancer and work life balance


Breast cancer and the workplace

Your job and your career path may be very important to you for financial and personal reasons. It’s normal to worry that a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis could affect your ability to work and earn a living. Continuing to work after a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis can have many benefits, including:

  • helping you feel a sense of normalcy again
  • giving you the opportunity to earn needed income
  • allowing you to get your mind off medical issues
  • helping you maintain your social and professional contacts
  • helping you keep health insurance coverage
  • supporting your career involvement

While there can be a lot of good things about working after a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis, remaining in the workforce can also be challenging.

The information below can help you understand and navigate the workplace more easily.


Working during cancer treatment

If you decide you want to work during treatment, let your doctor know. Your healthcare team can provide guidance on how to prepare for working through treatment:

  • They may encourage you to schedule short rest breaks throughout your work day.
  • They may recommend you keep a journal so you can track and remember important details, such as to-do lists and meeting notes.
  • Your team can help you coordinate treatment days around your work hours so you can come up with a plan that works for your schedule.

If you’re planning to return to full-time work after an absence, ask your employer if you can start by working a few partial days before getting back to full time. This can help you measure your strength and adapt to any changes in the environment.

If you spent time away from work, ask coworkers you trust to help you with any adjustments you may need to make, or any new information you need to learn. Ask if they can help you catch up on new systems or procedures established while you were gone


Sharing information about your diagnosis at work

It’s hard to know how, when, or whether to disclose a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis in the workplace. No matter how long you’ve been in the workforce, what you share is up to 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 coworkers every day, carefully consider who, if anyone, you want to tell about your diagnosis. Your coworkers are not required to protect your privacy, so be cautious in sharing your information. While sharing your diagnosis can mean your coworkers may give you extra support at work, it could also disrupt your day-to-day work life if, for instance, coworkers ask a lot of questions about your health or your treatment. Figure out what feels right to you before you decide whether or what to share – and with whom you feel comfortable sharing it.

If you decide to share your diagnosis with certain coworkers, think about boundaries you want to establish. For instance, it’s a good idea to consider how open you want to be in different situations, such as when you need to take a day or two off for treatment. Coworkers can often be a great source of emotional support, and you may feel comfortable sharing your health details or the reason you won’t be at work. On the other hand, it’s not uncommon for some people to give unwanted medical advice or express opinions about your situation. Sometimes it can drain your energy to have those interactions. And sometimes it can be tiring to answer coworkers’ questions, no matter how supportive they are. If that’s happening, it’s okay to limit the amount of information you want to share – and limit any opinions or questions that might be coming toward you.

If you need an accommodation at work such as a change in your work hours, you will have to disclose some information to your human resources representative, but it doesn’t always mean that you have to share your cancer diagnosis. You might also decide to tell your boss about your medical condition. Both the human resources department and your supervisor are required by law to keep your health information private, but it’s important to know that they may need to share some information with higher-ups..


Your rights and legal protections in the workplace

Just like anyone, you have legal rights in the workplace and the right to be given equal opportunities. You can’t be fired based on your medical condition.

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.

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. These include shortened hours, modified work schedules, or reassignment to an open position. State or local laws may also protect you.

Employee Assistance Programs can help you manage personal issues 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.

Disability policies and taking time off

When illness prevents you from being able to work, short- and long-term disability insurance policies can provide you with 40 to 70 percent of your base salary.

Short-term disability policies

  • can provide coverage for approximately 3-6 months
  • include a brief waiting period in the beginning (such as 7 days) during which you may be asked to use any sick/paid-time off days before short-term disability coverage begins
  • do not protect your job. Allowing you to come back to work is determined by your employer’s internal policies and state and federal laws such as the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Long-term disability policies

  • are not required by law to be offered to you, although many employers do offer it
  • do not protect your job
  • provide coverage that begins once short-term disability coverage ends
    can sometimes provide coverage that lasts until your normal retirement date or until you become eligible for Social Security Disability benefits, although some policies are more limited and may end after 2-3 years

Talk to a representative from your employer’s human resources department to learn more about whether disability insurance is available. If your employer offers this coverage, it’s important to carefully review the benefits and limitations of each type of policy.

For more information about these laws and the state laws and resources that may be useful to you, visit Triage Cancer.


Reviewed and updated: July 20, 2020

Reviewed by: LBBC Staff


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