Making it Work

Making it Work

Expert Tips for Navigating the Workplace during Cancer Treatment

by Rebecca V. Nellis

Many people choose to work through some or all of their cancer treatment. The reason for that choice is different for every individual. Some need a steady income or access to benefits; others are hoping to maintain a sense of normalcy or purpose during treatment and recovery. No matter what your motivation for choosing to work during your treatment, these tips can help make the process a little easier.

Creating an Action Plan

Having a plan can help you regain a sense of control over your work life; but it’s important to keep it flexible, as things may change over time. Start by making a list of everything you need to do – breaking it up into small parts can make things less stressful – and then prioritize. 

Talking to Your Manager and Coworkers

Deciding whether to share your diagnosis requires weighing several factors, including your workplace culture. Knowing the social environment at your job site can help you figure out how your news may be received, so trust your instincts. If you do decide to tell, you’ll likely share with those who will be instrumental in figuring out how to make staying on at your job workable for you during treatment (for example, your supervisor or HR).

Try not to take it personally if a coworker or your boss makes an awkward or insensitive comment. If you keep conversations focused on the work itself, people will likely follow your lead, which will help reset their view of you as “the person with cancer.” 

You can use “The Swivel” technique to take a cancer-related comment and spin it back to work. For example, if your boss says, “You’ve been looking so exhausted lately, I didn’t want to overwhelm you by adding more to your plate.” Then you could reply, “I appreciate your concern, but work is a key part of my overall well-being. In fact, last night I had some ideas about the project, which I’d love to share with you.” It’s important to acknowledge the comment, but then swivel the conversation back to a point you feel comfortable discussing.

Companies typically want to retain their good employees, so it never hurts to ask for what you need to keep working.

Managing Side Effects at Work

Ask your healthcare team these questions so you can learn the specifics of all your treatments and medications:

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Knowing these details will enable you to make informed decisions about any work accommodations you might need. Also, keeping a diary to record and monitor how you feel throughout the workday, or week, can help you assess how treatment side effects might be affecting your performance – and, in turn, assist you in finding ways to address them.

Requesting modifications to your role or to your work environment may help you to stay on the job while you undergo treatment. One way to access these modifications is through the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA requires that certain employers (those with 15 or more employees, as well as all state and local governments) make “reasonable accommodations” to allow eligible employees to continue to perform the essential functions of their job. It’s also worth mentioning that, even if your employer isn’t legally required to provide you with an accommodation, it doesn’t mean they won’t. Companies typically want to retain their good employees, so it never hurts to ask for what you need to keep working. Finally, be sure to check out your state’s fair employment law, as it may provide additional protections beyond what the ADA offers.

Deciding whether to share your diagnosis requires weighing several factors, including your workplace culture.

Avoid Multitasking

Even though we live in a society that constantly demands we do more than one thing at a time, the key to staying focused and getting things done is to create a to-do list, prioritize it, and then accomplish each task one by one. 

Here are some things you can do to avoid the temptation to try to multitask:

  • Carry one notebook with you that holds important notes, lists, and priorities for work and for home. That way you never find yourself with the wrong notepad at the wrong time (a key strategy if you’re experiencing chemo brain). 
  • Turn off your phone, email, text, instant messaging, and social media notifications when you are trying to power through items on your list. 
  • Learn to delegate effectively. Assess your workload and decide what tasks require your personal attention and what can be distributed to others. You can’t do everything alone!

Minding What You Say Online

It’s important to consider the long-term effects of your online activities. You may believe it’s safe to post on your social networks about your cancer history, but with privacy settings changing every day, you might not be as protected as you think. Whatever you do and say in the digital world becomes part of your online footprint – so you need to be aware that employers may be able to access the things you post. 

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Deciding to Move On

If your job doesn’t seem like a good fit anymore or doesn’t fulfill you in the same way it once did, you’re not alone! Many cancer survivors say their cancer experience has served as a catalyst for personal and professional change in their lives. If you’re feeling this way, you may want to take some time to weigh your options and research different possibilities before taking the leap and leaving your current workplace.

Rebecca Nellis is executive director of Cancer and Careers, a national nonprofit organization addressing the intersection of work and cancer. 

For more information, tools, and programs to help you re-enter the workforce after a cancer diagnosis, visit

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2018.