Working through cancer: 6 strategies for success and support in the workplace


by Stacey Webb, MPA-HCA, BSN, RN, ONN-CG, Patient Navigation Program Manager

Jun 5, 2023

“You have cancer.”

Those words can change your life in an instant. The impact on your body, emotions and finances can be overwhelming. There are so many decisions to make.

One of the decisions many people face after a new cancer diagnosis is whether to continue working while they receive treatment. For some, their job provides a stable paycheck or health insurance. Some find that continuing to work provides a comforting routine and a sense of normalcy. Others have a strong support system among their coworkers.

Whether you continue to work is a personal decision, and there are many factors you should weigh—the type of treatment, stage of cancer, your overall health and your job responsibilities. Your healthcare provider and support system can help you talk through those issues so you can face cancer with confidence.

On the job while under treatment

There are also some steps you and your employer can take to make this challenging time easier for both of you. Here are a few of the areas you may want to weigh when planning your work life during treatment.

1. Communicate clearly

Once you've made the decision to work during treatment, open, timely communication with your employer and colleagues becomes crucial. Choose a trusted supervisor or human resources representative to share your diagnosis with and discuss any necessary adjustments to your work schedule or workload.

Keep your contacts updated on any changes that affect your ability to do your job, like improvements that allow you to take on new tasks. Transparency will not only help them understand your needs but also foster a supportive work environment.

It’s up to you to decide how much or even whether to tell coworkers about your condition. Remember that while HR and your supervisor are required to keep details about your illness and treatment confidential, your colleagues are not.

2. Ask for accommodations

Today, many organizations today offer flexible work arrangements, including remote positions. Home offices can provide a comfortable environment, reduce exposure to germs and allow you to better manage side effects of your treatment. Working from home can also help relieve some of the physical and mental stress you’ll face during your cancer journey.

Find out, too, if you can flex your work hours. Your employer may allow you to work whenever you want as long as you work a certain number of hours per week or meet goals for your projects. Think about whether you’re up to a 40-hour-a-week schedule or if part-time hours would be better.

Don’t hesitate to ask for other accommodations that could help you stay on the job during cancer treatment. Your HR representative can help you figure out what you need for your unique situation. You can learn more about your right to accommodations under federal and state law at:

3. Plan ahead

Cancer treatments involve appointments, tests and therapies that can disrupt your regular work routine. Plan ahead by syncing your treatment schedule with work commitments. Tell your team about your availability and any potential time-off requirements as far in advance as possible. This proactive approach will keep surprises to a minimum and help ensure your colleagues can cover meetings and other duties if necessary.

4. Use your resources

Many employers offer special workplace accommodations and resources designed to support employees undergoing cancer treatment, including reduced hours, modified duties or access to counseling services. Investigate your rights under employment laws to ensure you're aware of any entitlements or protections.

Some companies will also provide special equipment to help you do your job, even if you work from home. Talk to your HR representative or someone in the technology department to find out what might be available to you.

5. Accept help

You’re used to being independent, and it can be challenging to accept help from others. It’s important to recognize that asking for assistance doesn’t make you weak or incapable. Your colleagues often genuinely want to lend a helping hand, so don't hesitate to let them lighten your load when needed.

It’s important to have a good support system outside of work, too—family, extended family and friends. There are also many virtual and on-site support groups available that offer supportive services and a plethora of resources.

6. Prioritize self-care

Remember to be kind to yourself during treatment. Cancer treatment can be physically and emotionally draining, causing fatigue, nausea and other side effects that can impact your physical and emotional energy levels.

That’s why it’s vital to prioritize self-care. Take breaks when needed, practice relaxation techniques and consider adjusting your work hours to sync with your peak energy times. Incorporate healthy habits into your routine, such as:

  • Maintain a balanced diet
  • Stay physically active as much as possible
  • Get enough restful sleep

Engaging in activities you enjoy and finding moments of joy can significantly contribute to your overall well-being. Remember, your health should always come first.

What if working doesn’t work?

Sometimes, despite best efforts by you and your employer, you may feel that you can’t continue to work at the level you’re used to. If that happens, talk frankly with your manager about what isn’t working. There may be a simple solution that you can come up with together.

If your issue is related to your treatment, speak with your provider to go over your concerns and any related side effects that may be keeping you from doing your best work. There are many options to help manage the side effects of chemotherapy, and your healthcare team can help you decide which one would be best for you.

Balancing work and cancer treatment is challenging, but it is possible with careful consideration, open communication and a supportive network. By collaborating with your healthcare provider, employer and colleagues, you can care for your health and your professional growth during this challenging time.

Learn how a patient navigator can help guide you through your cancer journey.

About the Author

Stacey Webb, MPA-HCA, BSN, RN, ONN-CG is manager of the Patient Navigation Program at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas.

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