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Work-Related Issues

Life Beyond Cancer - Work-Related Issues

Are you thinking about going back to work?  Do you need to go back to work? Overall, nearly 80% of people diagnosed with cancer will return to the workforce after their treatment.  For some people, returning to work helps maintain their self-esteem, reminds them that there is a life outside of a cancer diagnosis, and yes, helps with their finances. Returning to work or seeking new employment can pose its own set of unique challenges. If you are returning to your job, you will want to talk with your employer about what your options are, such as work from home or use flextime or job share. These types of options can help you ease back into the demands of the work place. There are people who can more easily return to fulltime work after treatment but for most people, this is a process. Most people find that they tire easily and cannot immediately work a full day. Others may experience difficulty with multi-tasking. Whatever the issue, you are not alone. Returning to work can be stressful and requires a plan.

Returning To Work Issues
Scroll through the topics below or click on a topic to go directly to that content.

Do I Have To Tell My Employer?

In short, the answer is no. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) an employer is prohibited from asking you about your medical history. In addition, you are not required to disclose any medical information or history to your employer; however, there may be circumstances in which it could be helpful to tell your employer about your cancer history. For instance, if you are in need of any special accommodations at work, such as a flexible schedule for follow-up appointments, you would need to disclose this to your supervisor. In this case your employer is legally obligated to provide "reasonable accommodations" to make your work life as comfortable and manageable as possible while you attend to your medical needs. Many survivors tell us that they fear discrimination if they speak up about their cancer history. This is understandable, but if the employer is not aware of your cancer history, they are not obliged to make any reasonable accommodations. 

Before you tell your employer about your illness, gather as much information as possible from your health care provider regarding:

  • A comprehensive explanation of your diagnosis
  • The expected treatment
  • The outlook and the timetable, whether you will need to take time off from work?
  • Expected time for a leave of absence

Bear in mind that changes can occur that could affect your timetable.  For example, your treatment may take more or less time than originally predicted, or your treatment plan may change based on issues that arise. Regardless, it is a good idea to be prepared for anything unexpected.

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Know Your Options

People who are working and have received a cancer diagnosis can encounter various legal issues while on the job. These can include, but are not limited to, needing reasonable accommodations for your medical condition, discrimination, or medical leave of absence. It is important that you have an understanding of the policies in your workplace. In addition, you should be aware of the following federal laws that apply to people living and working with a cancer diagnosis:

  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA):  The ADA covers employers with 15 or more employees. If you have cancer, this law covers you if you disclose your diagnosis to your employer, and require reasonable workplace accommodations.

    This law protects people living with cancer from discrimination in the workplace. It requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to allow employees to function on the job (i.e. schedules, reassignment of an employee to a less taxing position) and ensures that employers treat all employees equally.
  • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA):  This law guarantees that eligible employees can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave which can be taken all at once or in increments as short as a few hours at a time. It guarantees that eligible employees maintain their health insurance benefits while out on FMLA and also guarantees that an employee who returns to work will be given his or her previous position or equivalent job with the same salary and benefits. To be eligible for FMLA, an employee must have worked for his/her employer for at least 12 months including 1,250 hours worked during the most recent 12 months.
  • Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPPA): HIPPA protects the rights of workers in group health plans. It protects your medical privacy, including your cancer diagnosis and treatment.  It guarantees access to health insurance and the ability to carry it over to another job, despite the cancer diagnosis.  It prohibits discrimination based on health status and it prohibits an employer from disclosing health information without your permission. It even limits the amount of information that can be disclosed.
  • Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA):
    COBRA is the federal law that allows patients to continue to carry the same health care insurance coverage that you had through your employer for an additional 18 months after leaving your job.  What you need to understand is:
    • You are responsible for paying the full premiums.
    • It applies to employers who have 20 or more employees.
    • It’s the same policy, so you do not need to change health care providers.
    • It requires that you elect COBRA coverage within 60 days of a qualifying event.
  • The Federal Rehabilitation ACT:
    Similar to the Americans with Disability Act, this act prohibits employers from discriminating against employees because they have cancer. This act only applies to employees of the federal government, as well as employers who receive public funds.
  • Disability
    First of all, understand what your employer’s definition of disability is. Definitions can vary from program to program, so it’s crucial that you understand and ask your administrators of the program how disability is defined. Disability is generally divided into 2 categories, short term and long term.  Short term disability is a disability that is expected to last less than 12 months. These plans are usually administered through your employer or the state. For long term disability, this is an illness or an injury that is expected to last 12 months or longer. Your employer or the government oversees long term disability programs. You should be aware that questions will be asked to determine your eligibility for longer term disability payments.

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Preparing For Changes in Appearance

Hair loss, weight changes, skin changes, and fatigue are a whole new set of challenges that you may face as you consider a return to work.  Maintaining a professional image at work, during or after treatment, likely is important to you.  This can be a stressful time.

What Can I Do?

  • Talk to your health care provider about a prescription for a wig.  This may be covered under your health insurance
  • Consider seeing a hair stylist or barber to help with ideas, accessories, and wigs
  • Consider the Look Good…Feel Better class through the American Cancer Society to advise on makeup, accessories, and tips
  • Consider a dermatologist consult to assist in skincare
  • Buy clothes that will accommodate weight fluctuations

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Seeking Employment

After a cancer diagnosis and receiving treatment, it is not uncommon to rethink your entire life. In fact, it is very normal. Before you begin your job search, it is important for you to stop and do a little self reflection before moving forward. Below is a list of questions that might help you better understand yourself and where you need to go from here.

  • What is my “new normal”?
  • What is my purpose now?
  • What are my practical, emotional, and physical issues?
  • What are my financial needs?
  • What is my required timeline? (Often driven by the above question)
  • Who depends on my income and what are alternative sources of income besides my salary?
  • Which of my skills are transferable?  Will my new chosen career path require additional training or education?
  • Can I afford training, the time off it may require, or can I afford to take an entry level job in a new field?  Do I have the stamina to complete training?
  • Are companies hiring in my chosen new career?  What is the competition?
  • Are my dreams of a new career realistic given my circumstances and the environment in which I live?

After spending some time reflecting on these questions, take an inventory of your favorite skills. What are you most proud of? What skills do you enjoy most? Being able to answer these questions builds the confidence that you need to see yourself being successful in the workplace.

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Resume Writing

Creating an effective resume is an important first step to gaining an interview. The resume should be written with a specific job in mind and customized to that position.  A short, clear summary of your capabilities and accomplishments will be the biggest impact on your resume. This will highlight what you can do.

Are you worried about gaps in your resume due to your cancer experience? There are a number of ways to address gaps. First, you can avoid the standard resume format. A standard resume, or chronological resume, is the most common resume and is the easiest for potential employers to read. Employers can also easily flag gaps in employment history and longevity as it is set up to be a historical and accomplishment based document. If your absence from work has been under a year, a chronological format is perfectly acceptable.  As you are creating or updating your resume, eliminating the months and listing only the years of work history can be an effective way to conceal a small amount of time. If you are trying to camouflage gaps longer than a year, consider using a "functional" resume format.  A functional resume is organized in terms of highlighting key transferrable job skills and qualifications, rather than the details of all your former positions. This will eliminate the time gap that would be seen in the chronological resume format.

Alternatively, you may choose to highlight other activities that might have been going on as you were undergoing treatments for cancer such as rearing children, caring for a sick family member, going to school for a degree, or pursuing additional training. It is never advisable to lie. While you are not obliged to disclose your cancer diagnosis or any treatment you've had, it is important to have an answer prepared so that the interviewer has some idea of what you were doing during that time period. 
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An important way to look for a new job is networking. In fact, 85% of jobs are found this way.  You broaden the circle of people who know that you are looking for a job, increasing the chance that someone who learns a job is opening up will think of you. Consider networking with:

  • Friends, neighbors, fellow church members
  • Professional associations
  • Doctors, lawyers, dentists, accountants
  • Previous colleagues and vendors

On-line social networking websites.  An absolute must social network to consider is LinkedIn.  You can find this at  Recent statistics showed that 97% of employers use Linked In to find potential employees. 

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Cancer and 

Look Good Feel Better 

Americans with Disabilities Act: 

The Federal Rehabilitation ACT:

Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA):

Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPPA):

Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA):



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