Back to Work: Coping with Cancer in the Workplace


When my brother was diagnosed with cancer, my family’s priorities were clear: his health came first. But eventually, we also had to return to work.

We were not sure how to talk about how the "C" word was affecting us with co-workers, how the constant worry and uncertainty made it hard to focus or plan the way we used to. In fact, we are still learning how to talk about that. But we have learned some lessons along the way.

While my mother raised us to believe that honesty is the best policy, she also recalls being asked casually about my brother’s brain tumor while sitting in her crowded workplace cafeteria, and wishing she could simply hide.

There’s often no right way to respond to the insensitivity of coworkers. My brother remembers one employer in his food service job saying, “Oh, you can’t work on Saturday because you’re having a radiation treatment? Can you work Monday, then?”

Just telling the truth to some people can make you feel inexplicably guilty, whether you’re dealing with a skeptical HR department charged with screening out scammers or a boss who’s heard every excuse in the book.

Of course, we’ve also experienced acts of kindness on behalf of colleagues. For example, my boss and his wife brought pizza to my brother in the hospital when he was first diagnosed.

However, we’ve all learned to play the C card a bit closer to our chests when it comes to work. My mother now faithfully documents each doctor’s visit with her employer as required by the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows employees to take time off to care for a sick relative. But she doesn’t offer anything beyond the required information.

Roswell Park patients can also find support in the Psychosocial Oncology department. Says Sue Sharcot, LCSW-R, formerly of Roswell Park, "We can answer questions about what [patients and families] should tell their employer, and [help them get] prepared for that conversation.”

Beyond that, how you handle things is up to you. Ultimately, each person’s track record should determine how you talk to them, regardless of how dire your situation may feel to you. Yes, a treatment is a legitimate reason to call in sick to work, but will your difficult boss react with sympathy, or suspicion? Be realistic. When cancer inevitably comes between you and your work, sometimes it’s best to keep things simple: “I’m taking tomorrow off for personal reasons.”

It’s also important, as my brother points out, to make yourself the “locus of control,” not the big C or your co-workers. For example, my mom and I have learned that if my brother’s due for a major procedure, we need lots of downtime to rest, relax, and reflect with loved ones. She takes the day off for every big appointment, while I’ve learned to clear my evenings of personal obligations. I know my friends will understand, and my co-workers don’t have to.

Bottom line: it takes some time, and you may have to be resourceful, but you can find solutions that keep you sane … whether or not you decide to keep everyone in your work life in the loop.

Cancer Resources

Here are some resources to help you as you navigate the tricky balance of cancer and career.

Roswell Park Resources

Psychosocial Oncology Dept.

This department provides “advocacy, legal information, employer tips, etc.” to patients and families, as well as other patient navigation and family services. No referral or appointmentis necessary, and consultations are confidential. This department’s main office is located in Room G552, and is open Mon-Fri from 8am-5pm. For assistance, call 716-845-8022.

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Your Legal Rights in the Workplace: Cancer and the ADA, FMLA

A useful summary of the laws and rights that protect individuals with cancer and their families.

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Government Resources

The ADA: Your Employment Rights as an Individual With a Disability

The ADA protects cancer patients from discrimination in the workplace, requiring employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for and ensures that employers must treat all employees equally.

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The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

If you are eligible, and have worked for over a year with a company that has 50 employees or more, this law guarantees that you can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, maintain your health insurance benefits while on leave, and return to the same level of employment.

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More Resources

Cancer and Careers

Much of the information from above was gleaned from this helpful website. This website provides an online forum filled with information intended for the working woman with cancer. It offers information and tools “to help working women manage their battle with cancer as effectively as they manage the rest of their lives.”

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Returning to Work After Cancer Treatment

A comprehensive article containing much of the information above, as well as a wide array of helpful links and information.

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Ryan Rose Weaver is a writer and teacher living in New York. Her younger brother, David, was diagnosed with an anaplastic astrocytoma in February 2011. Sadly, since the posting of this blog, David lost his battle with cancer, but his family would like his memory to live on through these stories as a source of inspiration and information to others. 

Editor’s Note: Cancer patient outcomes and experiences may vary, even for those with the same type of cancer. An individual patient’s story should not be used as a prediction of how another patient will respond to treatment. Roswell Park is transparent about the survival rates of our patients as compared to national standards, and provides this information, when available, within the cancer type sections of this website.