Returning to Work After Cancer

While beating cancer is a major victory, there still might be certain things that leave you feeling a bit defeated— like returning to work. And understandably so. After all, it’s likely some changes have occurred since you took a leave of absence, possibly resulting in a different atmosphere. Will your employer and/or your coworkers question your ability to perform at the level you did before your diagnosis? Will you be able to handle the same workload as you did pre-cancer? Are you confident in your decision to return to your old job or would it be better for you to start from scratch elsewhere? 

Unfortunately, there is no guaranteed way to know how things will go. Because of this, we encourage you to prepare ahead of time. By doing so, you can make the transition back into the workplace setting a little smoother. And, since we at Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers want you to be able to step into your job, old or new, confidently, we’ve compiled some things for you to consider before you schedule your return to work. 

Be Realistic About Your Situation

Even if you feel mentally ready to return to work, it’s important that you honestly determine if you’re actually up for the challenge. 

While your job might not be physically demanding, certain responsibilities— waking up at a certain time and being alert, responsive, and productive for several hours at a time— can be surprisingly draining. Additionally, it’s rare to have a job that doesn’t cause at least a little bit of stress. Therefore, it’s important that you can honestly answer the question of whether you’re ready for re-entering the world of deadlines, responsibilities, and expectations. As a cancer survivor, your most important “job” is taking care of yourself. Because of this, we at Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers (RMCC) encourage you to listen to your body and talk to your oncologist and your loved ones. 

Returning to work can be a wonderful step in the right direction, but only if the time is right. Going back into the workforce without being physically and mentally prepared can have a negative impact on your health, which is the last thing you need. Remember, it’s OK to take your time— you’ll get to where you need to be once you are truly ready. 

Pick a Manageable Back-to-Work Schedule

Even if you’ve gotten the approval of your oncologist to return to work, it doesn’t mean you have to jump into a full-time schedule from the start. In fact, transitioning back to work is usually more successful when you ease into it. Remember, you didn’t take a typical “break” from work. You were off fighting cancer, which likely took a toll on you both physically and emotionally. Before you embrace a 40-hour-work week, take time to consider if that’s what you’re up for. You might find out that you’re better off returning part-time— and that’s okay. If your job description allows, you might even consider working from home for a while. Whatever choice you make, it’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach and that listening to your body and making adjustments as needed is what will set you up for success. Fatigue from cancer treatment can last for several months for some survivors, so be prepared for that. 

Identify Any Special Accommodations You May Need

As a cancer survivor, your cancer treatment may have left you with some physical differences that may require some special accomodations in order to keep you comfortable at work. To identify what those are, it can help to make a list of what you know of or suspect you’ll need to request in order to perform your best in the workplace. This might include:

  • Will you need access to the restroom more often? 
  • Do you need a wheelchair or walker?  
  • Can a stool be provided if standing for a long period of time is difficult? 
  • Do you need to wear special apparel? This can be especially important to consider if your job requires you to wear a uniform. 
  • Are there any medication side effects your boss should be aware of? 

Schedule a Call or Meeting with Your Supervisor

Last but definitely not least, take time to have an in-depth conversation with your supervisor before returning to work. Share your excitement to return and use this time to describe any special requirements you may need as well as time away from the job that may be required for follow up appointments, physical therapy, etc. Encourage them to ask questions and give answers that will help them better understand how your ability to work has been impacted by cancer treatment. Often, cancer survivors face challenges at work— but together, you can brainstorm solutions that can improve your office surroundings.

This discussion will help alleviate a huge source of anxiety you may feel as a cancer survivor preparing to return to work: fear of discrimination. Fortunately, most employers are reasonable and will probably be more than happy to welcome you back after cancer treatment is over. With that said, you should prepare yourself just in case you have an employer who is less than enthusiastic about your return due to the special accommodations you may need. 

Hopefully Your Employer Will Give You Their Support

Worrying about how you’ll be treated when you return after missing work for an extended period of time due to cancer treatment is only natural. Maybe you worry about the possibility of being penalized (directly or subtly) after your prolonged absence. Or, if you’re able to return to work, but in a weakened or physically disabled state, you might be concerned regarding the physical logistics of navigating the workplace.

For this reason, certain laws have been set in place requiring employers to accommodate weakened or disabled employees. However, there are some gray areas regarding illness-related termination that you should be aware of. While federal law does require employers to make a reasonable effort to accommodate qualified job applicants or existing employees who have disabilities, the employer is not required to comply if he/she can prove that providing requested accommodations would create a hardship for the company (i.e., if complying with a request would endanger the company’s financial ability to stay in business). Reasonable requests that employers must comply with typically include: 

  • Allowing an employee to transition to another open position within the company
  • Making changes to make the workplace accessible to those with disabilities (enlarging doorways, installing ramps, etc.)
  • Restructuring an employee’s job so they can tolerate it better 
  • Allowing an employee to adjust their work schedule, including switching from full to part-time

The Law is On Your Side

As a cancer survivor, it’s only natural that you are concerned about being fired for missing too much work or discriminated against as a result of your illness. 

Thankfully, you have protection. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act, your employer cannot legally terminate or demote you for being ill as long as you are qualified and able to perform your job. Additionally, if you weren’t working before your cancer diagnosis and decide to enter the workplace after being sick, it’s illegal for potential employers to discriminate against you because you have or had cancer. 

Should you need additional time off for extra treatment or symptom management after you return to work, the Family and Medical Leave Act provides protection for your job. Under this law, employees with serious illness can take up to 12 weeks off (all at once or spread out over time) and/or work part-time for a limited time.

Unfortunately, there is no way to guarantee that your employer will welcome you back to work with open arms or that you’ll land a job that’s fully accommodating to your needs. For this reason, make sure to review the American Cancer Society’s Americans with Disabilities Act: Information for People Facing Cancer to learn more about your rights as a cancer survivor. If you believe you’ve been discriminated against in a way that has caused you to lose your ability to make a living, we encourage you to schedule an appointment with an employment lawyer.