How to Discuss Working With Cancer With Your Employer



June 29, 2020

One of the pivotal decisions made during a cancer treatment is whether you can continue working. It is quite common for people to choose to continue to work for various reasons such as for a distraction, to continue a routine, and to keep health insurance coverage. However, balancing side effects and work will become increasingly difficult as treatment progresses. 

Workplaces will do what they can to accommodate this big change in your life. Knowing what’s reasonable to request or accept is critical to ensure you’re doing everything you can to keep working, if that’s your goal. 

When to Approach your Employer

It all starts with having the difficult conversation with your employer about your cancer diagnosis. 

Cancer itself is not considered a disability by law. However, it is considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when the disease or its treatment causes "physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities." This includes caring for oneself, walking, performing manual tasks or working.

Generally, you should ask for a reasonable accommodation when you realize that you need one to effectively complete your job responsibilities. If you delay the request and your job performance suffers, your employer may question your performance, as they aren’t aware of your health status. Choosing the appropriate time to do this can be tough, which is why we recommend seeking professional guidance from a Healthcare Advisor when uncertain about your timing. 

How to Approach your Employer

To be protected by the ADA, you must disclose your disability to your employer. You do not have to share all the details, but you must provide enough information to prove that you have a disability. 

You are not required to release your medical records to your employer, however they may ask for reasonable medical documentation, such as a doctor’s note. By law, this information will be kept confidential and will only be revealed to other supervisors who need to know in order to make accommodations for your duties at work. 

This conversation can be done in person or in writing. However, it would be in your best interest to have your request in writing and to keep a record of the communication. 

You should cover:

  • The diagnosis

  • How your treatment is affecting your work

  • Your suggestions for “reasonable accommodations”

Common accommodations requests 

Don’t be shy to ask for one, or multiple, of the following workplace accommodations: 

  • Part-time work schedule. Example: if you are experiencing fatigue or are unable to stand for more than four hours per day.

  • Modified work schedule. Example: if you are taking medication that might cause grogginess or nausea at certain times of the day. 

  • Time away for treatment. Example: if you need to attend doctor’s appointments or undergo ongoing treatments.

  • Job restructuring. Example: if you experience a decreased level of physical strength and may need to reduce certain manual tasks that are included in your duties.

  • Modified office temperatures 

  • Consent to call or email doctors during work hours

  • Improved building access and parking close to your work area

  • Transfer to an alternative position. Example: if there is a related, vacant position in your company that can better accommodate your situation.

An employer is not required to grant every requested accommodation. They only need to agree to accommodations that don't create undue hardship, meaning that they don’t reduce efficiency in other jobs, infringe on other employees' rights or benefits, impair workplace safety, or conflict with another law. Your employer may counter your requested accommodation with an alternative that is easier for them to implement. 

Most employers are willing to work with their employees to find an arrangement that works. At this point of the process, it is important to stay open minded to suggestions but firm to ensure that your rights are protected. 

If through conversation with your employer you realize that your medical condition is too severe to continue working, you may consider requesting a medical leave.

The negotiation process above can drag on and get stressful. Having a third party individual such as a family member, a partner or a Healthcare Advisor step in and help you navigate can be a great support.