Reasonable Accommodations Can Make Working Through Cancer Treatment Easier


Asking an employer to modify a work space or schedule may help patients adjust to returning to work during cancer treatment.

Many patients with cancer continue to work through treatment. It’s a variety of reasons that keep them on the job, such as insurance coverage, a distraction from the disease, feeling less isolated and being in a routine.

However, being at work while facing cancer can be challenging. Days will be missed for treatment, side effects will begin and coworkers most likely will start to notice and, perhaps, ask questions.

Employees should know their rights — how they are protected by their employer and on a state and federal level. For example, job protection may be through specific employer policies, such as short- and long-term disability insurance, sick time and flextime/telecommuting; and federal laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act.

But the first question that arises is who should a patient share their diagnosis with at work?

“Disclosure is a spectrum,” said Rebecca V. Nellis, executive director of Cancer and Careers, during the organization’s ninth annual National Conference on Work and Cancer. “It could be whether to tell no one or everyone. Or it could be somewhere in-between there. Although, there are people who tell no one.”

Ninety-one percent of people tell someone, according to survey findings presented during the presentation. The majority (71%) of people disclosed their cancer to a supervisor or manager, followed by coworkers/colleagues (65%), human resources (26%) and no one (9%).

Sometimes discussing the diagnosis with a person at work can have a positive effect, explained Nellis and co-presenter Joanna F. Morales, a cancer rights attorney and CEO of Triage Cancer. A reasonable accommodation can make working through treatment easier. It’s defined as any change in the work environment or in the way things are customarily done that enables an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities.

Examples of reasonable accommodations include a manipulated work space. If someone can’t walk long distances, then they can ask to have a printer at their desk. Or if their office is close to the cafeteria, but the smell is making their nausea worse, they can ask to switch offices, explained the presenters.

Another accommodation includes a modified work schedule. This may be working from home or part-time or asking for scheduled breaks. Patients can also ask for technology to help them do their job. For instance, if someone has neuropathy, voice-to-text software may allow them to avoid typing on a computer and reduce pain.

It’s also reasonable for someone to change jobs within their company if there is an open position that fits their new needs. “It doesn’t mean an employer has to create a new position,” said Morales. “Even if an employer doesn’t have to create a new position for you, there are lots of work places where an employer will be willing to do some job restructuring to keep a good employee.”

Concerns over cost of reasonable accommodations is an issue for some employers, she explained. However, according to a study conducted by the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), 59% of accommodations have no cost. Thirty-six percent have a one-time cost around $500.

“There is no specific time frame for when you have to ask for an accommodation,” said Morales. We generally recommend that you ask for an accommodation as soon as you need it.”

Individuals should make sure their requests are reasonable, check their employer’s policies and reach out to JAN if they need help. It also may be good to get any accommodation arrangements in writing, advised the presenters.

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