The Impact of a Cancer Diagnosis on Your Employment

Written By: Jennifer Briggs

Many cancer survivors have concerns about how to handle their diagnosis at work and how it will impact their career. Effects from treatment may impact their ability to perform job duties and affect relationships with supervisors and co-workers. This article will highlight key strategies that cancer survivors can take to best navigate work and cancer.

The first strategy is to consult with your healthcare team about your diagnosis and treatment and how they will impact your work life. If continuing to work is a priority for you, let your medical team know what the demands of your job are and how proposed treatments and timelines will impact your ability to function in the workplace. Get a sense of potential side effects and then discuss them specifically within the context of your particular job. Questions you may ask are:

  • Can I, or should I, work during treatment?
  • Will my treatment require me to take time off work? If so, how much?
  • Is there any flexibility in the scheduling of my treatment to make it easier to work?
  • How will the side effects affect my ability to do my job and how can I best manage them?
  • Will my side effects become more or less intense after a few weeks?


By asking questions and including your healthcare team in your decisions about work, decisions can be made collaboratively that will benefit your health and protect your job whenever possible.

The second strategy is to gather as much information as you can about your company policies and your legal rights. Employee handbooks and human resources departments are great places to start to understand all your options including health insurance coverage, short or long-term disability insurance, sick-time policy, vacation time, flextime or job-sharing policies and accommodations that can be made. Your legal rights include protections under state and federal laws including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act, Family and Medical Leave Act and various state laws. More information on these policies for Illinois residents can be found here:

The third strategy is to maximize your health insurance and fully understand your coverage. Reviewing the fine print on your policy can reduce the potential for misunderstandings later. Make sure you know the answers to the following questions:

  • How do I go about getting a second opinion?
  • What, exactly, is covered (e.g. doctor appointments, hospitalizations, chemo treatments) and to what extent?
  • What is my coverage for out-of-network care?
  • Must treatments be pre-authorized and if so, when?
  • What is my prescription coverage? Is it brand-name and generic?


Another strategy is to decide whether to tell your employer – and if so, whom. Consider what your work environment is like, the potential treatment side effects you are likely to experience and how the law might work in your favor if you disclose your medical condition. If you would like to seek reasonable accommodations under the ADA, you may have to disclose a medical condition, though not necessarily an exact diagnosis. If you decide to disclose, consider the culture and the relationships you have with co-workers. You may have to prepare for misconceptions about what a cancer diagnosis means and a wide range of responses and reactions.  Give thought as to how much detail you want to share and reveal it in a straightforward manner. People will take their cues based on how you present yourself. Be aware that what you share on social media could impact your work life as well, depending on how you share this information.

If you ultimately decide to take time off work, it may be difficult than expected to part with work responsibilities. Working with your team to assess your workload, designate responsibilities, create a written plan and find a point person to keep you connected are ways to minimize the stress of taking time off.

The following websites are great resources with more information on how best to balance a cancer diagnosis and treatment with your job.