Work and Employment: Starting a job after cancer

Since many cancer patients stop working at some point during treatment, it can be challenging for survivors to reenter the workforce.

If you’re looking for a new job and concerned about explaining a gap in work history, try a resume format that focuses on experience, achievements or lists projects completed, rather than time spent at a company.

If you’re returning to the same job, contact your human resources department or your supervisor to discuss how to prepare for your return. Ask about scheduling options that can help you transition successfully back to work.

While most employers treat cancer survivors fairly and legally, some survivors experience barriers when returning to the workplace or starting a new job. It’s important to ask your human resources department for guidance.

You may want to disclose your cancer experience if your treatment side effects affect your ability to work.

Tips for going back to work:

  • Take small breaks to keep your energy up throughout the workday
  • Use lists and alarms to remember important meetings or tasks
  • Discuss concerns with your manager
  • Take it slow
  • Don’t be afraid to mention difficulties caused by cancer or treatment
  • Request part-time hours to start
  • Ask about flex time for medical appointments
  • Try sharing important projects until you’re ready for full-time work
As a cancer survivor, you might experience physical discomfort including fatigue, pain, cognitive problems or other side-effects that make work challenging.

You have the right to ask for part-time work or Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodations, like flexible schedules for doctor visits. A letter from your doctor can help communicate your specific needs to your employer.

Limitations from cancer treatment side effects are considered disabilities under the ADA, so employers must provide reasonable accommodations, including:
  • Setting work breaks to take medication, see a doctor or reduce cancer fatigue
  • Assigning you to a position that better fits your new hours or abilities
  • Providing access to an employee assistance program for confidential counseling

Legal Protections Benefits

Legally, your cancer can’t be used against you in the workplace, and you’re not required to disclose your medical history to potential employers.

The ADA guarantees your right to health privacy and prohibits employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating against employees or qualified job applicants based on disability, including cancer.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off for health reasons, and companies with at least 50 employees are required by law to provide this job protection.

FMLA leave may be taken in small amounts, like hours or days. If you didn’t use all of your FMLA benefits during treatment, you might be able to use some leave for medical reasons.

Social Adjustment at Work

The routine of work can provide a welcome relief or distraction, as well as offering a sense of purpose.

Additionally, social connections at work can be an important part of the healing process for many survivors.

While most colleagues will likely be supportive, others might respond awkwardly or with uncertainty. Remember, it’s your decision how much to share about your cancer journey with coworkers.