Returning to Work After Cancer Treatment


For many cancer survivors, returning to work can be both exciting and anxiety-inducing. Knowing your rights and making a plan can help ensure a smooth transition.

Completing cancer treatment can be called many things: post-treatment, remission, cancer free, survivorship, no evidence of disease. However you choose to label this stage of your cancer experience, completing treatment is a huge milestone. Friends and family may want to celebrate and many will assume your life can go back to normal. But, most people who have been in this position know that there are challenges ahead.

One of the many challenges of the post-treatment phase is returning to work. This might mean returning to your place of employment after medical leave or finding new employment. Once you are medically cleared to return to work, here are several things to consider before returning to the workplace.

Know Your Rights

As you navigate this transition, keep in mind that there are laws that protect a person in the workplace during and after cancer treatment. The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, including those with a history of cancer or other illness. People protected by the ADA are entitled to reasonable accommodations from their employer, such as a flexible schedule to accommodate follow-up appointments, a decrease in physical labor, or more frequent breaks. More information about the ADA can be found on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) website.

Another important law is The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which enables people coping with a serious illness, or one of their family members, to take unpaid leave for up to 12 weeks within one calendar year. Leave does not have to be taken all at once and can be taken in blocks of time. This is another helpful thing to keep in mind when there is a need to take time off for follow-up appointments after treatment is complete. To learn more, visit the U.S. Department of Labor’s website and search for FMLA.

Legally, you are not required to disclose information about your history to current or potential employers. However, in order to be covered by these laws, a certain amount of disclosure is necessary. You are not required to share your specific diagnosis, treatment, etc. But, a medical professional will need to fill out forms in most settings, which may include some of these details.

Seeking New Employment

Once treatment is over, you may be seeking new employment. Before you start your job hunt, take some time to think about your goals, skills and whether or not you’ll need additional training or education to obtain the job you are seeking. If you are changing fields, consider talking to someone within that field before you make a decision. If possible, attend networking events and talk to your professional connections about your goals.

During the interview process, employers are not allowed to ask you about your medical history. If you’re concerned about explaining an employment gap, you can say something like, “I was dealing with health issues, but they’ve been resolved and I am ready to get back to work.” You are not required to disclose your cancer diagnosis to prospective employers.

Interacting with Coworkers and Employers

If you’re returning to a previous job, take a few moments to consider your work environment and culture and come up with a plan for first interactions. If you would rather not share details about your cancer experience, you can say something like, “I’m doing just fine,” and leave it at that. You should not feel pressured to talk about your cancer experience if you don’t want to, and supervisors are expected to maintain confidentiality.

Many people will be supportive when you return to work. However, there may be others who will doubt you or make insensitive comments. While you can’t control what others might say, you can employ strategies to avoid further insensitive remarks. You can politely respond using what Cancer and Careers refers to as “the swivel.” This tactic allows you to acknowledge the question or comment and then redirect the conversation to something you are more comfortable talking about.

Know Yourself and Your Environment

As much as you might want to get back into your “normal” life and routine, your mind and body may need time to readjust. Try to ease back into work as much as you can. If possible, start with a position that permits fewer hours, a part-time schedule, working from home or frequent breaks. You may need to re-evaluate your workspace to ensure it accommodates any limitations such as needing a different chair, having a desk closer to the bathroom or keeping necessary items within arm’s reach to conserve your energy.

When it comes to stress and/or anxiety in the workplace, try to be easy on yourself in the beginning. You’re going to have some stress, but you can do this. Leave yourself a note to remind yourself to take a few deep breaths every hour. Take breaks, get outside for some fresh air or listen to music for a few minutes. If you can, say no to certain projects or delegate tasks to others. Give yourself permission to ease back into things.

Be sure to take advantage of great resources like Cancer and Careers, which offers free résumé assistance, career coaching, workshops and other information about working during and after cancer. CancerCare offers free support services such as counseling, support groups and educational information. Consider joining a post-treatment online support group to talk to others who are dealing with the many challenges that come after cancer treatment.

Returning to work after cancer treatment will have its challenges, but with the right mindset and a plan in place, you can make it a smoother transition. Keep the lines of communication open with your doctor to ensure your medical needs are being met and don’t be afraid to ask for reasonable accommodations at work. Most importantly, don’t be too hard on yourself. You’ve been through a lot and it’s okay to take your time.

Victoria Puzo, LCSW, is the Online Support Group Program Coordinator at CancerCare. As an oncology social worker, Victoria provides supportive counseling and resources to people coping with cancer and people who have experienced the loss of a loved one.

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