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Returning to Work After Cancer

Transitioning from cancer patient to cancer survivor is a huge relief. This transition is also a time of uncertainty if you’re a member of the workforce. Will your employer and/or your coworkers question your ability to perform at your pre-illness level? Will you physically be able to handle your pre-cancer workload? Are you certain you want to return to your old job or should you consider a fresh start at another business?

One way to ease your transition back to the workplace is to prepare ahead of time. Here are some things to think about and address before you schedule your return to work or set out to look for a new job.

Evaluate Your Situation Honestly

Even if you feel mentally ready to return to work because you love your job (or you simply cannot wait to get back to work so you can focus on something besides cancer), are you physically and mentally ready for the challenge?

Your job may not be physically demanding, but the mere responsibility of waking up at a certain time and being alert, responsive, and productive for several hours at a time can be surprisingly tiring. Additionally, most jobs are associated with at least some degree of stress. Are you prepared to re-enter the world of deadlines, responsibilities, and expectations? As a cancer survivor, your most important “job” is taking care of yourself. Listen to your body and talk to your doctor and your loved ones. Returning to work can be a tremendously positive milestone – when the time is right. Returning to work before you’re physically and mentally ready can have an impact on your health. Don’t rush the process – even if you decide now is not the time, you can get there!

Identify Your Ideal Back-to-Work Schedule

Just because you and your physician agree that you’re physically and mentally able to return to work, that does not necessarily mean a full-time schedule is right for you. Easing your way back into your daily work routine is often a more successful approach than jumping in with a full schedule. Taking time away from the workplace to fight cancer is a lot different than taking time away from the workplace to “take a break.” Fighting cancer is exhausting! You may be fully ready to embrace a 40-hour-work week … or, you may be better off returning part-time (working half days or two or three days a week, for instance) or working from home if your job description allows. There is no one-size-fits all approach. Listen to your body and make adjustments. Fatigue from cancer treatment can last for several months for some survivors.

Identify Any Special Accommodations You May Need

When you are a cancer survivor, you might not be able to go back to work under the exact same conditions as before cancer. Sometimes there are physical differences that may require some special accommodations, even if they’re temporary. Write down a list of anything you know of or suspect you’ll need to request be successful in the workplace. This might include:

  • Do you need to use a wheelchair or walker now?
  • Is standing possible for a long period of time? Is a stool an option for you?
  • You may be on medication that causes a side effect that your boss should be aware of.
  • Will you need to have access to a restroom more often?
  • Do you need to wear special apparel? This can be especially important to consider if your job requires you to wear a uniform.

Schedule a Call or Meeting with Your Boss

Last but definitely not least, before you announce your return to work, have an in-depth conversation with your boss. Share your excitement to return and use this time to describe any special requirements you may need as well as time away from the job that may be required for follow up appointments, physical therapy, etc. Allow them to ask questions so they will understand better how your cancer treatment truly affected your ability to work. And brainstorm solutions with them so that you’re a part of the solution to the challenges that cancer survivors experience at work.

This discussion will help alleviate a huge source of anxiety you may feel as a cancer survivor preparing to return to work: fear of discrimination. Most employers are reasonable and will probably be more than happy to welcome you back after cancer treatment is over. Unfortunately, there are typically some exceptions. Not everyone reacts positively to your request to return to work with some special accommodations.

Hopefully, Your Employer Will Be On Your Side Too!

Especially if your cancer treatment regimen caused you to be away from the workplace for an extended period of time, you may worry about how you’ll be treated when you return. Will you be penalized (directly or subtly) after your prolonged absence? If you’re able to return to work, but in a weakened or physically disabled state, you may worry about the physical logistics of navigating the workplace.

Employers’ legal requirements to accommodate weakened or disabled employees is more of a gray area than the legal requirements preventing illness-related termination. Federal law requires employers to make a reasonable effort to accommodate qualified job applicants or existing employees who have disabilities. However, if an employer can prove that providing requested accommodations would create a hardship for the company (i.e., if complying with a request would endanger the company’s financial ability to stay in business), the employer is not required to comply. Reasonable requests that employers must comply with usually include,

  • Allowing an employee to be reassigned to a vacant position
  • Allowing an employee to work part-time or on a modified schedule
  • Restructuring an employees job so it’s more tolerable
  • Making changes to make the workplace accessible to those with disabilities (by installing ramps, enlarging doorways, etc.)

The Law is On Your Side

The most obvious worry that you probably have as a cancer survivor is that you will be fired for missing too much work or discriminated against as a result of your illness.

Thanks to federal laws including the Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act, as long as you are qualified and able to perform your job, your employer cannot legally terminate or demote you for being ill. If you weren’t working before your cancer diagnosis and decide to enter the workplace after your illness, it’s also illegal for potential employers to discriminate against you because you have or had cancer.

If you return to the workplace after cancer treatment but still need to take time off for additional treatment or manage your symptoms, your job is protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act. This law allows employees with serious illness to take up to 12 weeks off (all at once or spread out over time) and/or work part-time for a limited time.

In a perfect world, your employer will welcome you back to work with open arms or you’ll be successful in landing a new job with an employer that values your contributions and has no problem making small changes to help you thrive in the workplace. Sometimes, those things don’t happen. If you’d like to learn more about your rights as a cancer survivor, make sure to review the American Cancer Society’s Americans with Disabilities Act: Information for People Facing Cancer. If you believe you’ve been discriminated against in a way that has caused you to lose your ability to make a living, it may be time to schedule an appointment with an employment lawyer.

 

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