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Workplace and Job Issues

The impact of a breast cancer diagnosis on work life varies from person to person. For some, the effect is minimal. For others, there might be some questions about how to manage work and treatment.

The impact of a breast cancer diagnosis on work life can vary from person to person. For some people, the effect is minimal. You may have an understanding supervisor, a flexible schedule, and an encouraging team to support you through treatment. For others, there might be some questions about how to manage work and treatment: What do I tell my boss? Should I take time off from work for treatment? How will I pay the bills?

Here are some strategies for managing the emotional, physical, and legal aspects of balancing your job and your breast cancer treatment.


Telling your boss and co-workers about your breast cancer diagnosis

The first question you may ask yourself when thinking about talking to your boss or co-workers about your breast cancer diagnosis is, “Should I tell them?” You don’t have to tell anyone at work, unless it is apparent that your diagnosis or treatment will interfere with your work schedule or your ability to do your job. Keep in mind that if you decide not to discuss your health at work, some questions may be raised if your productivity is affected or if you need to take a lot of time off because of treatment appointments.

You might decide to just tell some people — your supervisor, your closest colleagues, or someone with whom you share responsibilities. Or you could decide to tell everyone, depending on how comfortable you feel. Keep in mind that people may react differently; you may receive support from some co-workers, while others might not be as comfortable with the conversation.

Your comfort is the most important factor, so do what feels right for you. Here are some things to consider while you’re figuring out how and what to tell people at work:

  • Have the conversation in a comfortable, private area.

  • Talk to your co-workers in smaller groups of one to three people to make the conversation easier.

  • Assure your team of your commitment to your job. Explain that you will do everything in your power to do the best job you can. For example, you can ask someone to handle your duties when you’re not at work and say you’ll follow up when you return.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask your co-workers for their help and understanding. Explain that you may need some flexibility in your schedule and support in some projects.

  • Explain that you will keep everyone posted on your health as needed. Allow co-workers to ask some questions about your situation — most likely, they care and want to help. At the same time, if they seem to be asking too many questions, let them know that you appreciate their concern, but that you’d like to focus on work.

  • Discuss a possible change in your appearance. You may experience hair loss, for example, if you’ll be having chemotherapy treatments.


Working during breast cancer treatment

If you will be working during your treatment, let your doctor know. Your doctor may be able to schedule treatments around your working hours or suggest ways to manage work stress while you’re in treatment. You also can ask your doctor if any of your treatments have side effects that could affect your daily routine, such as nausea and fatigue. Learn how to manage side effects associated with breast cancer treatments.

Sometimes, people undergoing breast cancer treatment experience thinking and memory problems, or “cognitive” effects. Cognitive effects such as memory loss and lack of concentration can have an impact on work. If you’re finding that it’s hard to stay focused or you’re forgetting important things, it may be helpful to keep a work journal. In your journal, you may want to:

  • Record meetings and appointments with time and date, who the appointment was with, and what was discussed. You can keep track of work meetings and doctors’ appointments.

  • Jot down important conversations. Make notes that include ideas you want to remember and decisions made during the conversation. If you have regular meetings at work, bring your journal for note-taking.

  • Track deadlines. List when things are due, and keep a timeline of goals met along the way.

  • Make a to-do list and add to it each time you think of something new. Check off items as you accomplish them.

  • Set realistic goals for tasks to be completed. Try to stick to your goals if you can, but don’t push yourself too hard.

  • Keep a written schedule to help you remember your workdays and days off.


Taking time off from work for treatment

Some people who would like to take time off from work during breast cancer treatment may be concerned about their health insurance coverage and financial stability. However, there are ways to take the time you need while still maintaining your job, benefits, and financial security. Here are some options to consider:

Short-term and long-term disability programs provide a percentage of your income in the event of an injury or illness that prevents you from working. Short-term disability may be granted by the state or by employers for a set period of time, usually three to six months. When short-term disability expires, long-term disability may be approved by the federal government or your employer. Long-term disability is for employees looking to take off an extended amount of time from work or take time off indefinitely.

If your company does not include a short-term disability plan as part of a benefits package, you may purchase a disability insurance policy from an insurance agent or a financial planner. Talk to your human resources department about what your company offers and to find out if you are eligible.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows you to take up to 12 weeks unpaid leave to heal from a serious health condition while keeping your position at your company and your benefits. However, the FMLA only covers companies that employ 50 or more people. Also, you must be a full-time employee and must have been with the company for at least a year.

If you plan to take time off from work, there are things you can do to help your workplace in your absence and make your return a little easier:

  • Talk to your supervisor about having co-workers take on some of your workload. One of your co-workers could even act as a “go-to” person, answering questions or making decisions for you in your absence.

  • Organize and label electronic and paper files so it is easy for others to locate important information or documents.

  • If there are tasks that only you are responsible for, consider writing up process documents so others are able to do those tasks while you’re out.

After taking time off from work, think about whether your old schedule will still work for you or whether you will need to make changes. Do you want to jump in headfirst and go back to work full-time? Or do you want to take it a little slower and ease your way in with a part-time schedule? Once you decide what work schedule works for you, talk to your supervisor. If working a full-time schedule is difficult but you need to stay full-time to keep your health insurance, talk to your boss about taking rests or breaks during the workday as you recover from treatment.

Some people may find that getting back to work is a bigger adjustment than they anticipated. Here are some ways you can try to make the transition a little easier:

  • If you’re managing treatment side effects, consider any special equipment or ergonomic adjustments that could make your work space more comfortable.

  • Decorate with photos of family and friends, inspirational pictures or quotations, or plants to give a more comfortable feel to an office or a personal space.

  • Listen to soothing music or meditations or try relaxation techniques, such as taking slow, deep breaths, if you find yourself becoming tense at work.


Balancing treatment when you are self-employed

If you own your own business, being diagnosed and treated for breast cancer doesn’t have to significantly affect your income. Here are some ways you can keep your business running while you get the treatment you need:

  • Consider hiring temporary help. If you have trusted family or friends who offer to step in, take advantage of their assistance. Maybe you have a close associate or business partner you can ask to assist in your role.

  • Keep all records clear and manageable, so anyone who may step in to help can easily perform necessary work tasks.

  • Complete big tasks before you begin treatment, if you can. If you need to still participate in the business once treatment starts, it’ll be easier to manage smaller tasks.

  • Know your healthcare coverage. Check your plan to make sure all your treatments are covered. If you don’t have healthcare coverage and are not working, you can purchase a disability plan from an insurance agent. You can also look at other ways to pay for treatment.

  • Consult a financial adviser, if necessary. Find out where you can save a little money, perhaps to absorb any financial impact of taking time away from work.

  • Take advantage of being the boss. Keep a flexible schedule, and try to work from home if you don’t already.


Looking for a new job after a breast cancer diagnosis

If you’re looking for a new job, you may be wondering where your health status fits into the process. Remember, when you’re interviewing for a new job, you don’t have to tell prospective employers about your health status. In most cases, it is illegal for potential employers to ask you about your health history, though employers may ask about your ability to perform the job if they feel you might have an apparent limitation.

If questions about your health status come up in job interviews, you can be careful yet honest in your answers. For example, if someone asks about a gap in your resume, you may want to say you had a health issue that was treated and resolved and that you’re ready to work. Focus on your skills and abilities. If you are still in treatment and have specific accommodation requests, such as a flexible schedule, you do need to let your potential employer know. Reassure your potential employer that your work ethic will not be compromised.


Recognizing and responding to cancer discrimination at work

Sometimes, people who’ve been diagnosed with cancer are treated unfairly at work. Biased actions, such as passing up a capable employee for a promotion, paying employees unequally for the same job, or even off-color jokes or comments, can be considered discrimination. It’s illegal for an employer to treat capable employees differently because of health status. Employees who believe they are being discriminated against because of a health issue are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) but only if the employer is aware of the health condition. If you believe you are being treated differently because of a breast cancer diagnosis, you may want to consider the following:

  • Talk with your supervisor or human resources department if an incident occurred that has made you feel concerned or uncomfortable.

  • Document any incidents that seem discriminatory. Include details of each event, such as time, date, and anything that was said.

  • Keep a detailed work history, complete with a list of accomplishments and goals met. Include hours worked and days off, with notes of shifts you covered for someone else or shifts others have covered for you.

  • Contact the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for more information on your rights. The EEOC enforces federal laws that prohibit job discrimination.

  • Don’t miss your opportunity to file a complaint. There is a standard time limitation of 180 days from the time an incident occurred to the time a formal complaint is filed. Some local or state laws may allow for up to 300 days from the original incident to file a complaint, depending on the situation. Contact the EEOC to find out more.

  • Consult a qualified discrimination lawyer. A lawyer can give you information and guidance specific to your situation. Discuss with your lawyer the next steps to take in the process.


Early retirement after a breast cancer diagnosis

We asked members of the community who retired sooner than they had planned to share their experiences, feelings about leaving their career, financial considerations, and new perspectives on retirement. Read 10 People on Early Retirement After a Breast Cancer Diagnosis.

— Last updated on July 27, 2022, 1:53 PM