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Getting Back to Work after Cancer


Wellness image

Once your cancer treatment is complete or nearing comple­tion and you’ve been cleared to return to work, at least part time, more challenges await. Here are some suggestions for smoothing the transi­tion from “person with cancer” back to valued employee.

Easing Back into the Routine
If you can set the tone as a relaxed, confi­dent cancer survivor, chances are those around you may be less uptight, too. If you can see your return to work as a major step forward in your recovery, that will affect your attitude in the most positive way.

After your medical leave is over, gear up for the next challenge: making your re-entry to your job as comfortable as possible. For cancer survivors, return­ing to work often brings mixed emotions – relief, trepidation, hope – and perhaps awkwardness. Even if you are sure you’re ready to return, you may worry: Will you encounter skepticism or sup­port? That depends partly on how you approach the situation.

Follow Your Style
If you’re naturally talkative and share information easily, you’ll probably want to update coworkers and your boss on your re­covery. If you’re more private, just tell everyone you’re doing fine and let it go at that. (You can expect your supervisor to honor your requests for confidentiality.) How much you divulge can also depend on your work environ­ment and whether other employees have taken time off for cancer treat­ment and returned to work successfully.

Resuming your routine underscores the reality that you’ve transitioned from “person with cancer” to employee.

Get Up to Speed
It’s important to feel confident again about your job abilities. How do you do so?

  • Test your psyche. Just as important as feeling capable of doing the job is feeling psychologically up to speed. If you’re feeling below par, you might seek one-on-one counseling from a social worker or a therapist, or join a support group of other cancer survi­vors returning to work.
  • Evaluate your readiness to work. Are you ready to come back full time or part time? If part time sounds more feasible, consider what accommoda­tions you will need. Do mornings work better, or afternoons? Take into account any medications you are on and their possible side effects. Will they impair your ability to drive to work, for in­stance, or to stay alert during marathon meetings?
  • Attend workshops or seminars to refresh your skills.
  • Attend industry events to keep your knowledge up to date.

Make a Plan
Once you’ve decided whether you are fit to return full time or part time, make a schedule, see if it fits your employer’s needs, and then prepare to follow it.

Take a look at your workstation. Does it need to be redesigned or fitted with equipment such as back support or other devices to make you more comfortable?

Focus on the work itself, even if catching up means tending to tedious tasks such as returning a boatload of telephone calls or tackling a moun­tain of mail. Resuming your routine underscores the reality that you’ve transitioned from “person with cancer” to employee.

Your Cancer History, the Law, and Your Insurance
There are a number of laws that may aid in your transition back to work and in getting the most out of your insurance. For example, after you return to work, you will probably need to take time off for follow-up visits and checkups, or maybe for remaining chemotherapy sessions. Be aware that you’re entitled to the benefits of the Family and Medi­cal Leave Act (FMLA) if you work for a company with 50 or more employers. Under that law, you can take the leave in small increments, even as little as one-hour blocks of time.

If you were employed and had health insurance before the diagnosis of can­cer, took approved time off, and are back to work, there should be no effect on your group health insurance at all. If you are covered by a group plan, you can’t be singled out for your cancer history. Your premiums can’t go up higher than others’ premiums, and you can’t be dropped from the group plan due to the cancer. The federal law known as HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) protects the rights of people in group health plans.

There are a number of laws that may aid in your transition back to work and in getting the most out of your insurance.

Even if you leave one group health insurance plan, you have protection in transitioning to another group plan. Another law called COBRA (Consoli­dated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act) provides continuation of group health coverage that might otherwise be terminated. It offers the right to tem­porary continuation of health coverage under certain conditions.

One of the main provisions of the recent healthcare reform implements new regulations that will prevent all health insurers from denying coverage to people for any reason, including health status, and from charging higher premiums based on health status and gender.

Are You Being Treated Fairly?
Legally, your cancer history can’t be used against you in the workplace. But it can be difficult to determine if your cancer history is being used unfairly, because discrimination can be subtle. If someone clearly less qualified is pro­moted, you should suspect the cancer history. If you hear disparaging com­ments, you are being treated unfairly. One woman (who filed a lawsuit) told of the day the office staff had to exit the building during a blackout and her boss said others should just follow her, since her radiation therapy made her glow. If tasks you used to do compe­tently are being given to someone else, that might be a clue your supervisor thinks you’re not as capable. If your assignments or projects are not as chal­lenging or time consuming as they were before your cancer treatment, that might be a clue. But the evidence is very “fact specific” for each workplace situation.

Moving to Another Company
Perhaps you’re unhappy enough to look for another job, you’ve decided to go after your “dream job,” or you just have an opportunity for an interview with another company. Going on a job interview is always challenging, but if you have a cancer history, it might be more so. If you decide to look around for a new job, experts recommend squashing that natural urge some can­cer survivors have to talk about it, at least right away, with a potential new employer. Also, you should know that your potential new employer does not have the right to ask about your medi­cal history. The employer only has a right to know if you are qualified to do the job.

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To learn more about returning to work after a cancer diagnosis, and for free informational materials on dealing with cancer in the workplace, visit

Reprinted with permission from Cancer and Careers, copyright © 2011. All rights reserved.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2012.