Working With Cancer: 4 Tips to Navigate Your Job in Cancer Treatment + Recovery

Posted: January 17, 2022


Mental Health






When you have cancer, focusing on your health is your #1 job. But it may get in the way of your actual career. Working with cancer isn’t like having a cold or taking a vacation. It’s hard. It’s muddy. It’s misunderstood. But YOU ARE A BADASS.

As if cancer isn’t hard enough, maintaining employment status while in treatment and recovery can be challenging. Or maybe you took time off after a diagnosis or being a primary caregiver and are looking to re-enter the workforce. How the heck does that work? We aren’t meant to work with cancer. Here’s how to navigate jobs, bosses, and coworkers in cancer treatment and recovery.

1. Be selective with whom – and what – you share about your cancer at work.

Don’t let info about your situation come from the watercooler (or Slack) gossip. You are your own PR team. 

You can take control of what you want others to know by setting boundaries and sharing a) what you’re comfortable with and b) what they need to know. Everyone will be curious. It’s part of significant life changes. Weird questions will come up. 

Newsflash: They don’t need to know everything. You’re not required to tell every person in the office everything you’re going through, even if they ask! Your journey is not their drama. But it does feel good to have a bud that you can lean on for support or have a vent sesh with (like your work wife/husband).

Want a not-so-passive-aggressive way to help them help you? Drop what not to say to someone with cancer (and what to say instead) in the team Slack channel.

Ensure your boss is in the loop, but only share details as needed when you’re comfortable. 

2. Ask for the flexibility and time off you need (everyone is different!).

Time off or not, you’ll likely need a little more flexibility from time to time. Whether this means working from home, making up work later, or going part-time for a few months, you may have options. 

Talk to your HR department about using the time you’re allocated by the government, including time off. You can’t be fired or passed up for a job based on your cancer or any illness. This discrimination is illegal. This is all thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Rehabilitation Act

Your job is protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which can give you up to 12 weeks off or reduced hours (part-time work) for a limited time. 

In short, know what you need, then ask for it. You never know when you may get an unexpected “yes.”

Understand your treatment plan beforehand, so you’re prepared to chat with your employer. 

You may want to wait until you have a treatment plan before telling anyone at work about your cancer. Of course, this is a personal decision and based on how you process emotionally. 

Remember your treatment and recovery are not just limited to chemo appointments or surgeries. Make sure you ask your healthcare team questions about side effects and how that could impact your work (mentally, physically, and emotionally). 

Being self-employed brings on additional challenges.

When you’re the boss of your own business, taking time off gets tricky. You may not have anyone to answer to, but you do need to manage your clients’ expectations. 

  • Look at the pros and cons. Once you have a better understanding from your doctor, think about your action plan. Hell, you’re a pro at planning -- treat this as a part of the business strategy. Every good business owner needs to pivot. 

  • Get a grip on finances. Understand your healthcare plan as it relates to treatment. Consider how long you may take off and how that will impact your revenue and expenses. 

  • Share the load. Bring on help if / when you can. Maybe you can outsource work for a few months or invest in something to help regulate ongoing tasks. 

  • Communicate. Figure out what you’ll tell clients / vendors, and know that it may result in mixed reactions / emotions; do what you need to do just to stay afloat! 

(Photo credit to to our bud, Kate.)

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