Many people are already in the workforce when they are diagnosed with cancer. For many, work is a source of fulfillment and financial security. As long as you are able to work, and you are not compromising your health during treatment, there is no reason for you to feel that you should stop.
Tips for Working During Cancer Treatment
Telling co-workers. In some settings, co-workers will react to your cancer diagnosis and absences with understanding and helpfulness. Other co-workers may feel uncomfortable around you because of your cancer, or they may resent taking on extra duties because of your absence. How open you are with your co-workers about your condition is a personal decision. In some environments, it won’t benefit you to share details. However, many women with breast cancer say they are glad they shared information about their illness with people at work.
Work schedule, calendar and duties log. You may want to make logs of your usual work schedule and duties, and refer to it when organizing any flextime, shifted duties or time off. You may also want to make a detailed list of job duties so that you are able to direct others in handling situations and procedures while you’re out of the office.
Worries about discrimination. Even though the public’s understanding of cancer is generally improving, some prejudices and wariness remain in the workplace. This may be in part due to competitiveness and economic pressures and fears. If this situation arises, you may want to keep records of your contacts with office personnel, including the names of people with whom you have spoken about your illness, the date and place you spoke, and the information you received. It’s also a good idea to keep documentation of your job performance evaluations.
Reasonable accommodations. Employers are not required to lower standards in order to accommodate any one employee. However, an employer is required to reasonably accommodate a qualified applicant or employee with a disability unless the employer can show it would be an undue hardship to do so. Examples of reasonable accommodations may include:
- providing or modifying equipment or devices
- restructuing a job
- offering part-time or modified work schedules
- reassigning an employee to a vacant position
- adjusting or modifying examinations, training materials or policies
- providing readers and/or interpreters
- making the workplace readily accessible to and usable by people with disabilities.
Tips on Returning to Work After Cancer Treatment
If you are able to return to work shortly after your treatment, you may find that it helps you maintain your identity and even boost your self-esteem. Cancer can be isolating, and it can be a comfort to be around other people. Check with your employer about options such as flextime, job-sharing or telecommuting if it will help you perform your duties. Some people with cancer who are re-entering the workforce may want to seek counseling to help readjust.
When writing a resume, focus on skills and experiences rather than chronology if there was a long period of time when you were out of work due to your illness. Rather than organizing your resume by dates of employment, focus on areas of expertise and experience.
When going for an interview, there is no need to volunteer your history of cancer. It is not legal for an employer to ask you questions about your health that do not directly relate to job functions. Consider your cancer history as any other piece of personal information, which is generally not appropriate to share during a job interview. However, if the question arises, be truthful about your medical history, especially on insurance forms.
If you are seeking employment, if may be helpful to try large companies that are more likely to have encountered employees with situations similar to your own. In addition, it may be helpful to ask your doctor for a letter that supports your current situation and ability to work.
It may help employers feel more secure about hiring you if an issue relating to your health arises.
Focus on your current health. If your current employer or potential employer is aware of your cancer history, emphasize your current abilities and skills, rather than dwelling on what you were or were not able to do in the past.
You have the same rights as anyone else in the workplace and should be provided equal opportunities, regardless of whether or not you talk about your cancer with people at work. Hiring, promotion and treatment in the workplace should depend entirely on ability and qualifications. As long as you are able to fulfill your job duties, you cannot be fired for being sick. Also, you should not have to accept a position you would not have considered before your illness.
Some common forms of discrimination are refusing to hire, demoting or denying promotions, not allowing time off for medical appointments, or suggesting that the person with cancer would be “better off” not continuing to work.
If you suspect discrimination, consider following these steps:
Work with your supervisor or human resources department to resolve the problem informally. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers are required to make reasonable accommodations. If you took this issue to court, the judge would ask that you and your employer try to work it out this way first. Is flextime an option? Are there accommodations you can suggest to your employer that will make your work life easier? Open communication between you and your employer about your needs and their needs may help to resolve what might otherwise turn into an unpleasant situation.
Get support from others. Perhaps a local cancer group or health professional would be able to provide education for your employer about cancer and workplace issues. You may want to speak to an attorney specializing in workplace discrimination who can advise you on how to proceed. If there are other cancer survivors in the workplace, see how they have dealt with the issue.
Keep written records of actions. Write down dates and times of discriminatory actions and conversations that you have with your employer. Be precise and detailed in your notes.
Your rights are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (if your company has more than 15 employees). Contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) if you wish to file a complaint. Be aware of filing deadlines. You have 180 days from the date of discrimination to file your complaint formally. That could be the date you were fired, date you were denied promotion, or the date your job responsibilities changed. After the 180-day deadline has passed, it is difficult to file a complaint.
Think carefully about your goals. If you do decide to take legal action, consider the consequences of such an action. Ask yourself whether the sometimes long and drawn-out process of a lawsuit is worth it, and how you would feel if you lost the decision. It is important to examine these issues for yourself carefully and understand the drawbacks of what you are getting into. It may also be possible for you to let go of the anger and move on.
Information in the employment section was adapted in part from Tips on Returning to Work After Cancer Treatment, American Cancer Society (800.ACS.2345 or www.cancer.org) and Ways to Advocate for Yourself or Someone Else Who Has Cancer, CancerCare, Inc. (800.813.HOPE or www.cancercare.org).