A cancer diagnosis can cause significant changes to your life – including at work. Many patients have to stop working during treatment, take significant time off, or alter their schedules, all of which can take a significant mental, emotional, and financial toll.
Some patients may have jobs that provide flexible hours or work-from-home options, but others don’t, or aren’t able to continue working because of the cancer, the treatment, or both. For those who can, continuing to work can help keep life as “normal” as possible.
“When patients are physically able to work, it’s always a strength for them,” says Dana-Farber Social Worker Bruce MacDonald, LICSW. “With all of the changes in your life, maintaining that part of yourself, which is so important for most of us, is a positive thing.”
Either way, a challenging issue for many patients – whether they are working during treatment or returning afterwards – is how to talk about your cancer with supervisors and colleagues.
Talking about cancer at work
Some patients are inclined to speak openly about their experience, while others are more private. There’s no right or wrong approach, MacDonald says. “I encourage patients to make it a conscious choice,” he explains. “It helps to come up with a short phrase or two that acknowledges someone’s concern and lets them know that you’re doing okay, but that you don’t really want to get into it right now.”
Responses to coworkers’ questions about your health may include:
- “Thanks for asking. I feel good and it’s good to be back. Maybe at some point we can chat about it. How are you?”
- “All in all, I’m doing pretty well. Right now I’m really trying to focus on getting back into the swing of things. Thanks for asking – let’s grab a coffee sometime.”
Many patients benefit from role-playing these work conversations – or potential job interviews – with their social worker or a trusted friend.
Starting a new job
For those looking for a new job following treatment, it’s important to remember that potential employers are not allowed, by law, to question your medical history. However, if you anticipate additional treatment may impact your work schedule, it may be important to disclose that. MacDonald recommends keeping the information you disclose to a minimum. For example, you might simply say that you have a medical issue that could impact your availability. “Ultimately, your medical information is private, and whether you share any of it is up to you,” he notes.
“These days, many employers have experience with employees who have cancer or some other illness, so it’s not an uncommon conversation,” MacDonald says, adding that most good employers value the contributions of current or potential employees, whether cancer is part of the story or not.
Returning to work
Going back to work after treatment can also be difficult, both mentally and physically. You might not have the same energy level as before, or you may experience treatment side effects such as chemobrain, which can make it difficult to focus.
“When you return to work, preparation is key,” MacDonald says. “If possible, contact your manager or supervisor before you return to work and explore whether you have the option to come back gradually, either part time or working from home.”
Talk to your social worker or a member of your care team about ways you can prepare for returning to work, or ways of maintaining connections to work during treatment.