How to Cope - Survivor Cancer & the Workplace: Making Employment Laws Work for You

Coworkers looking at computerHearing the words “You have cancer” can understandably leave you feeling overwhelmed. People newly diagnosed with cancer are consumed with thoughts about their health, their family, their mortality. They think about treatment options, oncologists, and cancer centers. But rarely do they think about the law.

Many cancer survivors are unaware of their legal rights and the resources available to help them through the maze of legal, employment, insurance, and financial issues brought on by a cancer diagnosis. For example, cancer survivors may experience employment challenges while working through treatment, taking time off work, or returning to the workplace. These include potential workplace discrimination, difficulty trying to balance their treatment schedule with their work responsibilities, and problems getting back into the workforce after taking extended time off to deal with cancer. 

You should know there are laws in place to protect you and provide you with tools that can help you continue to be a productive employee. Here, we’ll answer some of the most frequent questions cancer survivors have about their workplace rights.

What legal protections can help me work through treatment or return to work?
The federal Americans with Disabilities Act provides eligible employees with protection against workplace discrimination based on their medical condition. It also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to allow employees with disabilities (including cancer-related impairments) to do their jobs. Most states have laws similar to the ADA, but some are more protective. For example, some state laws may cover businesses with fewer employees than those covered by the ADA. 
The federal Americans with Disabilities Act provides eligible employees with protection against workplace discrimination based on their medical condition.One of the most valuable tools the ADA provides is access to reasonable accommodations. Some examples of helpful reasonable accommodations for employees with cancer include: 
• Modifying your work schedule (for example, flexible schedules, additional breaks, telecommuting, extended leave)
• Modifying the work space (for example, switching offices, providing an ergonomic chair, closer parking spots)
• Using technology (such as headphones or speech-to-text software)
• Changing workplace policy (such as allowing you to wear a hat or scarf)
• Shifting nonessential job duties to other employees
• Moving you to a more suitable position, if one is available 

While caregivers aren’t legally entitled to reasonable accommodations, it often cannot hurt to ask for them. Many employers want to keep valued employees, and providing reasonable accommodations helps them do that. 

What if I need to take time off?
The Family and Medical Leave Act is a federal law that allows employees to take time off from work because of their own serious medical condition or to care for a spouse, a parent, or a child with a serious medical condition. While taking leave, your job and your employer-sponsored health insurance coverage are protected. This means that you cannot be let go because you are taking time off under the FMLA. 

Many people will try to use any paid time off they have accrued without designating that leave as FMLA leave. However, it is often in your best interest to use those benefits concurrently. The paid time off is what will allow you to keep receiving a paycheck, and the FMLA is what provides the job and health insurance protection. Leave time under the FMLA can be taken as a 12-week block of time, or it can be taken in smaller segments of time, such as taking every Wednesday off to visit the doctor or receive treatment. 

Keep in mind, though, the law only provides a minimum of what employers must provide to eligible employees. Many employers offer benefits beyond what the law requires. Therefore, it is in your best interest to investigate what your employer offers. 

How can I maintain some income if I am not working?
If you do not have any paid time off, or you need to take more than 12 weeks off, you may be able to maintain some income through short- or long-term disability insurance policies. Disability insurance can be purchased from an insurance company, or it can be offered through your employer, through state disability insurance programs, or through one of two federal long-term disability programs: Social Security Disability Insurance or Supplemental Security Income. If you do not have access to disability insurance or need additional assistance there are other ways to try and reduce financial toxicity after a cancer diagnosis.

What if I want to keep the details of my diagnosis private at work?
You may be required to provide your employer with a medical certification form from your healthcare provider to verify the need for a reasonable accommodation or medical leave. However, you do have choices about if, when, how much, and to whom you disclose your cancer diagnosis. 

Deciding whether to disclose your diagnosis is an incredibly personal decision. Some cancer survivors have had regrets about disclosing their diagnosis because they didn’t think it through or didn’t know they had choices. You should talk with your healthcare team about your disclosure preferences. 

Disclosure decision-making used to just be about whether you would have direct, in-person, or phone conversations with family members and friends. Now, with technology integrated into every aspect of daily life, medical information might accidently, or intentionally, be disclosed online. Information shared online can have a long-term impact, and it can be found by anyone (for example, future or current employers or dating prospects). Therefore, it’s important that you make conscious decisions about how much, if any, medical information you want to share online. 

Is there anything else I should be thinking about?

Of course. In addition to issues regarding workplace rights, you may also need to deal with other cancer-related legal matters. For example, you may also need to become familiar with your rights regarding genetic discrimination, family law, estate planning, medical decision making, finances, and more. 

Cancer can be a life-altering experience. But arming yourself with information about your legal rights can help you avoid the many pitfalls that may be hiding in the maze of cancer-related legal issues.  


Monica BryantMonica Fawzy Bryant is cancer rights attorney, speaker, and author dedicated to improving access to quality information on cancer survivorship issues. She is the cofounder and chief operating officer of Triage Cancer, a national nonprofit that provides education on the practical and legal issues that arise after a cancer diagnosis, and coauthor of the book Cancer Rights Law: An Interdisciplinary Approach. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter at @TriageCancer. 

To learn more about your legal rights as a cancer survivor, visit TriageCancer.org.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2019.