skip to main content

Work and Cancer

image of computer keyboard with someone working on it

contributed by Annette Schork, R.N., BSN, OCN, CBCN, Cancer AnswerLine

Many people newly diagnosed with cancer have questions about working through their treatment -- as well as questions about how/when they can return to work after treatment. It really depends on the person, their diagnosis, their treatment plan and their overall health. Some people may need to shorten their workdays, while others may find they are able to continue working during their treatment with no problems.

Cancer and Careers and Harris Interactive conducted a survey to better understand the current needs of working people with cancer. The survey found that the majority of cancer survivors and people with cancer are eager to continue working, but need support to balance their health and work demands. Findings from the survey help to clarify the importance of supporting survivors in their workplaces:

  • Top three reasons to continue working after a diagnosis:
    • Feeling well enough (69%)
    • Wanting to keep things as normal as possible (48%)
    • Wanting to feel productive (38%)
  • 45% of surveyed cancer survivors took no time off following their diagnosis
  • 79% of surveyed cancer survivors said that cancer recovery is aided by the routine nature of work.

Talking your employer/co-workers about your diagnosis and treatment

Before you speak with your boss or colleagues, talk to your doctor about the ways your illness may affect your work. Some items to discuss with your doctor:

  • Tell your doctor exactly what your job entails and any unique circumstances you’ll be coping with.
  • If work is a priority, let your doctor know that it’s important for you to make decisions that will benefit your health and your job whenever possible.
  • Ask for general ideas about the ways that your diagnosis, medication or treatment could affect your job performance.
  • Find out specific details about all of your medications and treatments, including common side effects.
    • How can you manage side effects like nausea or vomiting, which make it difficult to work?
    • Can you take your medicines or go for treatments early or late in the day, so the side effects won’t interfere with the bulk of your workday?
    • Will your side effects become more or less intense after a few weeks, which could affect your ability to concentrate on work as time passes?
  • Ask about treatments that might make it easier to continue working, including oral chemotherapies or treatments in clinical trials.

Returning to work after treatment

Reports by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society estimate that the number of survivors (defined as anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer) will reach almost 18 million in the next decade. As the number of cancer survivors continues to increase, the need for support around survivorship issues, such as working during and after treatment, is becoming more and more important.

  • 41% of cancer survivors are diagnosed at "working age."
  • Cancer survivors are more likely to be unemployed.
  • 20% of cancer survivors still report work limitations affected by cancer-related problems five years after diagnosis.

Returning to work can help you feel that you are getting back to your life that you had before you were diagnosed with cancer. Transitioning back to work is different for everyone. Some people find working full-time easy, while others may need to make adjustments (job sharing, flex-time, or working from home). You may tire easily or have trouble focusing at first – these are normal problems for those returning to the workforce after cancer treatment. It is important that you take care of yourself during this readjustment period by getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet and incorporating some type of activity (such as walking 30 minutes five times a week) into your daily routine.

You also may wonder if you have to mention to a new employer that you have had cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, you have no legal obligation to talk about your cancer history unless your past health has a direct impact on the job you seek.

Continue learning about work and cancer:

back to top