How should you handle your cancer diagnosis at work? Emma Stein, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist at Cancer Wellness at Piedmont, discusses who you should tell about your diagnosis, workplace accommodations to consider and how to answer unwelcome questions from well-meaning colleagues.
How cancer can affect your career
There are many ways cancer and treatment side effects can impact your work life.
“Fatigue, difficulty concentrating, ‘chemo brain’ and the emotional effects of the diagnosis can impact how you feel at work and your ability to do your job,” says Stein. “In addition, cancer treatment usually entails many appointments and that can lead to a lot of missed work.”
Workplace accommodations during cancer treatment
Stein recommends learning about your rights and protections as an employee, and what accommodations you can expect based on your needs.
“Think through what you need from the workplace, whether it’s a flexible schedule, rest breaks during the day or working part-time,” she says. “Try to get a sense from your treatment team of what you can expect over the course of treatments so you can clearly communicate to your boss or human resources what your needs might be.”
Who should you tell about your cancer diagnosis?
“People can only provide support and accommodations if they know what’s going on,” she explains. “You’ll want to determine who needs to know for that to happen.”
This might include your boss, human resources, direct reports or close colleagues.
“Telling other coworkers is a personal decision, and it depends on the nature of your workplace and your relationships with coworkers,” says Stein. “It might be obvious that something is going on if you’re not feeling well or you’re missing work for appointments.”
If you think colleagues will pick up on the fact that something is different, consider whether it would be beneficial to tell them about your diagnosis.
Handling unwelcome questions at work
“Unwelcome questions will happen in your personal life and at work, so be prepared,” says Stein. “Think through in advance what you want to tell people and what you want to keep private so you are not caught off guard when it happens.”
The benefits of working during cancer treatment
If your treatment side effects are not too intense and your workplace offers flexibility and accommodations for your needs, it can be helpful to continue working during treatment. In addition to providing financial stability and health insurance, work can take your mind off cancer treatment and give you a sense of purpose.
“Working during cancer treatment can help you stay engaged and maintain a sense of identity,” says Stein. “But it absolutely needs to be manageable – your health and well-being should be your No. 1 concern.”
Learn more about support during the cancer journey.