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When diagnosed with cancer, people often wonder how treatment will affect their ability to work. Many factors, including the type of treatment, the stage of cancer and the nature of a job, determine whether a person will need to take time off or modify their schedule.

Will I be able to work while I'm getting treatment?

Whether you can work during cancer treatment depends on many factors, including:

  • The type of treatment you are getting
  • The stage of your cancer
  • Your overall health
  • And the kind of work you do.

What you can do and whether you will need to limit how much you do will depend on how you feel during treatment. Some people with cancer can still go to work and do their usual everyday tasks while they get treatment. Others find that they need more rest or just feel too sick to do much. Your doctor may also want you to limit some of your activities.

Still, many people are able to keep working while they're getting cancer treatment. Some people work their usual full-time schedules. Some work the same schedules with special conditions, like being closer to the office bathroom so it's easier to deal with side effects. Others need a less demanding schedule, like taking extra days off or working part time for a while.

You may find it helpful to talk with your employer about what you might need at this time. Under federal and state laws, some employers may be required to let you work a flexible schedule to meet your treatment needs.

Telling co-workers

You may have mixed feelings about what you want your colleagues to know about your cancer and treatment. How open you are with your co-workers and/or supervisor about your cancer is a personal decision. You may want to decide who you know best and who will most likely understand your situation, and confide in those few people. They might be able to help you develop the best plan for telling others—if you choose to—and give you ideas on how to deal with work. Try not to feel pressured to share or explain things. Only you can decide what works best for you and your situation.

Tips for working while you are getting treatment

It's important to figure out how you will continue to work while you are being treated for cancer. These tips might help you better manage your time and work:

  • Plan treatments late in the day or right before the weekend to allow time to recover, if possible.
  • Explore options like working from home some days. This might help you feel less tired and allow you to take care of yourself more easily if you experience side effects.
  • Getting help at home can mean having more energy for work. Certain daily chores may be divided among friends and family members.
  • Unless there is a reason not to, let co-workers who you are comfortable around know about your situation. They can be great sources of support. They may even be able to help you come up with ways to better manage your work during this time.
  • Keep your supervisor up-to-date on how well your schedule or other changes are working for you.
  • Make a log of your usual work schedule and duties. Refer to it when you set up flex-time, shifted duties or time off.
  • Make a detailed list of job duties so you can direct others in handling things when you're out of the office.

What if you can't keep working during treatment?

Sometimes, even with good planning and extra time off, you may find it's just too much to keep working during cancer treatment. In these instances, it's important to talk with your doctor about how you are feeling. If cancer treatment starts causing too many problems for you at work, your doctor can help you complete the necessary steps for taking more extended time away from work.

As a place to start, someone from your human resources department can help you find out if you have short-term or long-term disability insurance at your job. If you do, you may want to get applications for both—just in case. In general, short-term disability pays you some portion of your income for the first few months you are unable to work. If you must be out longer, some employers also carry long-term disability insurance, which usually starts after six months of disability. You must meet the insurance company's definition of disability to get this income.

Whether or when you decide to take some time off, your doctor will need to help you by filling out part of the disability application. Therefore, remember to try to communicate with him or her about how you are feeling throughout your treatment.

*Article adapted from the American Cancer Society.

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