How to Talk to Your Employer After a Breast Cancer Diagnosis

“There are different options that your employer may be able to offer you.”

“For some patients, going to work during the treatment for metastatic breast cancer can be extremely difficult,” says Natalie Berger, MD, hematologist and oncologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital. “There are options out there, and it's important to know what your rights are and what you're eligible for.”

First of all, it’s important to know that—according to the Americans with Disabilities Act—your employer cannot dismiss you from your job simply because of a cancer diagnosis, as long as you are capable of doing the job. Thankfully, most employers know this and treat cancer patients and survivors fairly. 

Additionally, federal and state laws state that your employer should provide you with “reasonable accommodations,” meaning some variety of changes to your environment or work hours (for example) to help you do the best job possible, despite your diagnosis.

It’s never required to tell your employer about your cancer diagnosis, or your health status in general, but here’s the thing: The benefits under the Americans with Disabilities Act are only available to you if your employer knows about your medical condition. 

Still, it can be unnerving to tell your employer about your diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. Before starting the conversation with your employer, consider consulting the following resources first, according to Dr. Berger: 

  • A social worker: These experts have experience in dealing with the multifaceted ways that cancer can affect someone’s everyday life, and could offer valuable resources for how to navigate your work situation.

  • Your human resources (HR) representative at work: They can provide you with details about your legal rights, and they may have experience assisting employees with cancer or chronic illnesses, or how your workspace has handled similar situations in the past.

  • Online: You can find a number of trusted websites that detail your rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as advice from other cancer patients and survivors for how they navigated their work situation.

If you’re nervous about telling your employer this personal information, or about how they’re going to react to it, consider choosing your words carefully. 

“You can say, ‘I have a diagnosis of cancer, and I'm gonna be needing treatments right now, so I may need a few extra days off of work,’ or ‘I may need to go to more doctor's appointments,’” suggests Dr. Berger. 

Consider what accommodations might be useful to you before you have the conversation, so you can be prepared to advocate for yourself. “There are different options that your employer may be able to offer you to help you find a better schedule and routine to continue working while you're being treated for metastatic breast cancer,” says Dr. Berger.

Possible and “reasonable” accommodations include things such as:

  • More flexible work hours

  • Working from home

  • Short-term or long-term disability (when your health insurance pays a portion of your salary while you are not working)

  • Traveling for work less

  • Extra days off for treatment

  • Medical leave (up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for personal health)

Of course, the most beneficial accommodations may change throughout your treatment, so don’t be afraid to check in with your employer regularly to adjust your accommodations as needed.

Get more tips for navigating everyday life after a breast cancer diagnosis:

Natalie Berger, MD

This video features Natalie Berger, MD. Dr. Berger is a hematologist and oncologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

Duration: 1:24. Last Updated On: Feb. 25, 2020, 5:47 p.m.
Reviewed by: Preeti Parikh, MD . Review date: Feb. 20, 2020
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