Tips for Working During Cancer Treatment
Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work
JANUARY 23, 2023
During cancer treatment and recovery, it is almost impossible to sustain our usual obligations and routines without making some adjustments. Our lives are already busy with personal and professional responsibilities; adding cancer to the calendar seems almost unimaginable. Furthermore, it can be challenging to ask for assistance with childcare, meals, transportation or other family and household obligations. It is even more difficult to accept our short-term limitations at work and feel comfortable and safe enough to ask our manager or colleagues for extra accommodation and support.
After Your Cancer Diagnosis: First Steps at Work
Not everyone is comfortable sharing information about a cancer diagnosis and treatment at work. It might help to begin by speaking with a human resources representative, who can provide information about benefits and plans available to you, as well as advise you on how to speak with your manager or colleagues.
If you have a job that pays only when you are at work, seeking assistance could be more difficult. In these situations, there may or may not be a human resources department to help you. You might have to think even more carefully about which coworkers are most likely to support you and how to plan your absences.
I remember a woman undergoing breast cancer treatment who worked as a union carpenter. Although the union likely would have been supportive of her needs, she found that her friends on the job were her biggest allies. They helped her by covering shifts and carrying heavy items, and they encouraged her to take rests and breaks during the day.
You may have to start by acknowledging to yourself (this is often the hardest part) and to your close work colleagues that you are going through a tough time and will need some help. You can remind yourself and others that this is a temporary situation. There is nothing shameful about this, but it does take some courage and honesty to speak up.
An excellent resource as you begin to think about your work life during cancer is the Cancer and Careers website. Information on the site and its staff members can answer virtually any question that you have about navigating work during cancer.
During Cancer Treatment: Managing Your Work Schedule
Once you have dealt with the larger issues, you will need to think about your daily schedule and energy. After your treatment has begun, it will be easier to predict your good and less-good days. Consider the best time to schedule chemotherapy and radiation treatments. If you know, for example, that your worst days after chemo are days three and four, consider whether you would prefer to feel worse over the weekend or during the workweek. Before starting radiation therapy, many people want to schedule very early appointments and just arrive to work a bit late. I tend to discourage this strategy, as you will become more fatigued as the weeks pass. Consider scheduling radiation for the middle or late afternoon and then go home to rest.
Take some time to think about all of your job responsibilities and how they could be categorized. For example, things that can wait six months; things that need to be done monthly, weekly or daily; unexpected tasks that occur randomly. Put aside the projects that can wait and focus on the recurring and immediate ones. Try to keep for yourself the tasks that you enjoy most, are most adept at completing, or require your unique skill set or perspective. Then consider the interests and talents of your colleagues and allocate some of your tasks to them.
Everyone’s workplace is different; you will need to think about the culture of your job after starting your cancer treatment. Some people might take short-term disability and stay away from the office for several months. Others will choose to either work fewer days on some weeks or shorten their hours when feeling unwell. Still others might try to push through as normal. There are different ways manage your work schedule during cancer, and the one that's right for you is something you will know best.
Workplace Rights and Cancer: ADA and FMLA Protections
You are probably familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that prohibits discrimination against people with any disability; this includes someone undergoing cancer treatment. You are also likely familiar with the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA); Massachusetts is one of the few states that mandates paid FMLA leave for up to twelve weeks. If you are being treated for cancer, you are entitled to job protection under both of these programs. (It is worth noting that Massachusetts's FMLA allows you to take time off intermittently rather than in one long block; this means that you can take time off for medical appointments or to recover from treatments, and continue working when you are feeling well.)