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February 2021

Staying On the Job During Cancer Treatment

Actor Chadwick Boseman played his biggest role—T’Challa in Black Panther—after his colon cancer diagnosis. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg continued ruling on the bench, and Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek kept quizzing contestants into the late stages of pancreatic cancer.

Their examples show you don’t always have to pause your career during cancer treatment. In one recent survey of cancer patients, almost 70% continued to work. That’s even as they had surgery, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and other treatments.

What’s possible depends on your cancer stage, therapies, and line of work, among other factors. Here’s what you need to consider.

Start with a conversation

First, talk with your healthcare team. They can fill you in on how your treatment may unfold. Sometimes your doctors will recommend avoiding certain activities, which may affect your work.

Another question to ask: what side effects you’ll experience. Those that can impact your professional life include:

  • Fatigue

  • Memory or concentration issues

  • Nausea

  • Limited mobility

Once you have a clear picture of your situation, consider scheduling a meeting with your supervisor. Share the basics of your treatment plan, including any hours you’ll need to be away. Things may change over time, but that starts you out on the same page.

It’s important to know your rights. As long as you can do your work, you can’t be fired for illness. You may have other legal protections, too. Talk with your human resources department, your union representative, or another workplace expert if you have questions.

Making it work

Keep in touch with your manager about how things are going and if you need any extra support. Most employers can offer accommodations. Working with cancer may be easier with:

  • A more flexible schedule, including frequent breaks

  • Part-time hours

  • Working from home

  • Modified equipment or devices

  • Switching responsibilities or tasks

In addition, getting more help at home may preserve your energy for work. Share chores with family and friends. Also, ask your healthcare team about treatment timing. For instance, scheduling chemo late in the day or week allows more recovery time.

Social workers or counselors can provide additional resources. If you feel comfortable telling your coworkers, they may step in with helpful ideas and understanding. Together, you can navigate the hard days—and celebrate the good ones.




Online Medical Reviewer: Brian McDonough, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 11/1/2020
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