Feature Archive

Earning a Living

About 1 in 4 cancer survivors experience some form of employment discrimination. Learn how to handle returning to work here.

WebMD Feature

What You Can Expect

Many cancer survivors wonder whether having a cancer history will make a difference in their job prospects. Common questions include: Will I be able to return to work? Take time off for more treatment if I need it? Work as hard as I once did? Advance in my career?

There is no one answer to these questions. Some people choose not to go back to their jobs while others are not physically able to return. But most work-able cancer survivors do return to work. Sometimes it takes a year or more before survivors are ready to return full-time, but once they go back, they almost always are back to stay. Cancer survivors have included professional and Olympic athletes, business executives, artists and musicians, film stars, and world leaders.

When cancer survivors return to work, some have highly supportive employers who help ease the change from patient back to employee. Others get back to the routine without much help from their company or organization. And at some workplaces, wrong ideas and false fears about cancer cause job-related problems that survivors must overcome.

The following stories reflect the workplace experiences of cancer survivors.

"After I had my colostomy, my employer asked me to quit my job because the cancer was upsetting my fellow workers. He said a demotion or transfer was possible if I didn't agree. Except for my wife, that job was my whole world. So rather than quit, I decided to fight for it. "-Jon H.

"My employer denies that my treatment last year for cancer had anything to do with my not getting a promotion and raise. My boss said I was being defensive when I suggested that I was being discriminated against because of my illness. He said he just didn't feel I was ready for the responsibility at this time. I don't know what to believe, but I'm looking into my options."-Betty C.

"When I went back to work, my boss was honest with me. She said that my situation had been discussed at a managers' meeting. Some people had questioned what impact my coming back would have on the company's insurance rates. Her boss asked how she planned to get the job done with an employee she could no longer count on to stay healthy. Fortunately she did some research and found out that the turnover rate, absenteeism records, and work performance of people with a cancer history are very much the same as unaffected workers. Her facts helped correct management's wrong ideas."-Roy P.

"I wasn't happy with my job before my cancer was diagnosed, and I'm no happier with it now that I'm finished treatment and back to work. At first I was just grateful that they took me back. I stopped job-hunting for fear that my cancer history would lock me out of better chances. But a friend convinced me that I shouldn't give up before I started. I haven't found the job I want yet, but I have found employers who've given me fair consideration."-Jean D.

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Cancer Survivors as Employees

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Tips for Dealing with Coworkers After Cancer Treatment

When your coworkers hear about your illness, many of them will want to help, but they won't know how. Others may be frightened by your situation, especially when they don't know much about cancer and today's potential for treatment and cure. Here are some ideas for helping them -- and you -- to resume a good working relationship.

There is no "right" way to interact with others about your illness. Once they are back at work, some cancer survivors don't want to focus on their cancer or to be associated with the disease in people's minds. Others are very open with coworkers about their experiences. They may have a frank discussion with their manager or close coworkers to air concerns, correct wrong ideas, and decide how to work together. The best approach is the one that feels comfortable for you.
  • Keep up contacts during your treatment and recovery.
Your coworkers will be concerned about you. If they have information about your treatment and progress, they will be less anxious and frightened.

It is also important to stay "connected" to the people with whom you work. Talk by phone. When you are able, have lunch with friends or stop in for an office party. Plan to rest before and after if necessary. Your return to work will be easier for you and your coworkers if you have stayed involved.

  • Ask your employer to educate company employees about cancer.
Research has found that people believe three major myths about cancer that sometimes affect their attitudes towards cancer survivors:

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