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Re-entering the Workforce After Cancer

The majority of cancer survivors are still of working age—more than 3 million in fact. For those of you who took time off during treatment, I know the transition back to work can be difficult, regardless of whether it’s full-time, part-time or an entirely new career.

Though re-entering the workforce can be intimidating, those who have made the leap find the experience has been largely positive. As reported by the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship:

“A 2006 national survey of cancer survivors found that most employers appear to be highly sensitive and accommodating to the needs of employees who have cancer or who are caregivers for cancer survivors. Three out of five survivors reported receiving co-worker support, such as help with work or random acts of kindness. Survivors and caregivers reported very low incidences of negative reactions from their employers and co-workers. The most common negative reaction, reported by one in five survivors, was that an employer gave a survivor less work. Other consequences, such as being fired or laid off (6 percent), denied a raise or promotion (7 percent), and denied health insurance benefits (4 percent), were far less common. Employees who worked in an office environment faced fewer cancer-related problems than did employees who worked in retail, restaurant or factory settings.”

Going back to work after cancer is always personal choice, but I’d like to offer some information and advice I hope will aid your decision.

The Benefits of Resuming Your Career

While returning to work isn’t for everyone, it does contain many positives. I know I’ve talked to several survivors who welcome a return to their regular schedule. According to an article in Coping with Cancer:

“Many studies show that returning to work may contribute to cancer survivors’ emotional and financial well-being. Besides income, it provides satisfaction, social support and the opportunity to interact with co-workers and colleagues. Continuing to work productively can be vital to your sense of well-being, as it is a reminder that you do have a life apart from cancer. Being a valued employee or trusted co-worker may be a helpful distraction from … cancer treatments and follow-up appointments.”

Legal Protections

If you’re an American citizen or resident, it’s also important to understand your legal rights as a cancer patient or survivor. A couple of laws in the United States provide specific protections:

  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): The ADA prohibits current and future employers from asking about your medical history. It also protects people with disabilities (which includes cancer under the law) from being discriminated against; requires employers to provide people with reasonable accommodations when necessary (see the next section); prohibits harassment based on disability; and much more. If you’d like to learn more about the ADA, these questions and answers can help. You can also call 800-514-0301 or visit
  • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA): FMLA allows qualifying cancer patients, survivors and their family members to take 12 weeks of unpaid time off within one calendar year. The leave doesn’t have to be taken all at once and can be broken up into several blocks of time. To learn more about the FMLA, visit

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces the provisions of the ADA and FMLA, so if you ever feel you’re being treated unfairly, contact the EEOC at 800-669-4000 or

Asking for Adjustments

During our patients’ stays at the Hope4Cancer clinic, we provide extensive accommodations based on each individual’s needs. We also tell them that to an extent, these accommodations can continue when they return to work. As I mentioned earlier, the ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations. These can include anything from modified workspace equipment to a flexible schedule to allow for treatments and appointments. However, you should know that while the ADA also prohibits employers from asking about your medical history, they are only required to provide you with accommodations if they’re aware of your condition.

Additionally, before our patients return to work, we always talk to them about the type of work they do, their workload and their schedules. We then make accommodation recommendations according to what they’re physically capable of handling.

Starting a New Career

Some patients decide against returning to a previous job and instead seek a new career. While your history with cancer should have no bearing on your chances of landing a new job, there are a couple things you might want to think about before putting yourself out there. First, if your cancer caused you to take significant time off work, you might want to reorganize your resume so that it highlights your job skills and qualifications rather than your chronological employment history. Another subtle yet truthful way to handle this is to leave off specific dates of employment and instead list your years of service with each previous employer.

Second, it’s a good idea to rehearse responses to interview questions. Interviewers cannot legally ask about your medical history, but they may, for example, ask what you’ve been up to for the last several months. You’ll feel better if you know in advance exactly how you want to reply.

Tips for Success

Going back to a work is a complex topic and a personal choice, but I like to boil it down to just a few actionable tips when I talk to patients at Hope4Cancer:

  • Work slowly and smartly: Work at a slow, steady pace, and build in rest periods throughout the day to avoid fatigue. Prioritizing your tasks and delegating what you can will help you preserve your energy.
  • Communicate: If you decide to share your cancer history with your co-workers, regularly update them about your workload. If you’re going through a rough patch, ask for help. Then return the favor when you’re feeling more rested.
  • Get comfortable: Wear loose, breathable clothing; sit in a supportive chair; and maintain good posture to keep your physical self as comfortable as possible. It’s also smart to rearrange your work space to allow for easier access to supplies if you have any new physical limitations.
  • Fuel your body: Drink plenty of water and eat well. Our Hope4Cancer Home Program Support includes a personalized meal plan that will help you feel your best.

Seeking Support

Lastly, it’s important to understand that you’re not alone; this is a message we tell our patients time and again. Don’t forget that you are part of a community of so many other cancer survivors and thrivers. The transition back into the workforce is a big one, so it can be helpful to seek out a counselor or support group full of people in similar situations. Help is always around if you look for it!

What has been your experience returning to work after a cancer diagnosis? Join the conversation by tweeting @Hope4CancerMex or commenting on the blog or Facebook page.

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