The decision whether to continue working during your cancer treatment is complex and there are many factors to consider. Half of cancer survivors are working-age adults and 20% of these individuals report work limitations within 1-5 years after diagnosis. As an oncology social worker with the Maine Medical Center Cancer Institute, I recently had the opportunity to attend the National Conference on Work & Cancer organized by Cancer & Careers and wanted to share some valuable information I learned that could help you with this complex and individual decision.
To work or to not work?
Here are some of the top reasons why people choose to continue working despite their cancer diagnosis:
- Financial reasons
- Feeling well enough
- Health insurance
- Wanting things to feel normal
- Feeling productive and busy
In fact, sixty-five percent (65%) of employed cancer survivors surveyed reported that working during treatment helped them to cope during treatment.
What to think about when making your decision:
- What type of work do you do? Be specific about tasks/responsibilities.
- What is the culture like at your job? (Is it small? Corporate? Close-knit/familial? How have coworkers been treated in the past during an illness?
- Do you have any concerns about working through treatment? If so, what are they?
- Have you explained to your oncologist exactly what your job entails?
- Have you asked your oncologist about common ways that your diagnosis, medication or treatment could affect your job performance?
- Have you located your employee handbook or company policy manual? If yes, have you read it? Do you have any questions about what you’ve read?
- Are you concerned about disclosing your diagnosis at work, school, or to other people?
- Are you familiar with stress-relief techniques that you can use in your workplace when things feel overwhelming or are causing anxiety?
- Are you familiar with tips/solutions to help you cope with treatment side effects that you may encounter in the workplace?
Making the laws work for you
In addition to reflecting on the questions above, having a good understanding of employee rights under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), and the Maine State Fair Employment laws can increase your ability to thrive in the workplace and/or transition back to work after taking leave. FMLA is 12 weeks of unpaid leave that protects your job and health insurance while on medical leave. It can be used intermittently (for example, taking 2 days a week off over a period of 26 weeks). Certain conditions apply, such as length of employment, hours worked, size of employer, etc. Here are some important things to know about the different programs that can help you.
• Determine the year period set your employer (rolling year, calendar year, etc.)
• FMLA leave can be taken intermittently throughout the year (totaling 12 weeks of leave)
• You can use FMLA and also ask for accommodations through ADA
• Employers can require use of PTO, vacation and sick leave while on FMLA
• Employees can request use of PTO, vacation and sick leave while on FMLA
• FMLA rules: https://www.dol.gov/general/topic/benefits-leave/fmla
Maine Family Medical Leave:
• Maine has additional medical leave protections under Fair Employment State law that are less restrictive in regards to number of employees and number of hours worked than FMLA.
• It covers 10 weeks of leave in a 2 year period.
• Chart comparing FMLA to ME Medical Leave: https://www.dol.gov/whd/state/fmla/me.htm
ADA Reasonable Accommodations:
A reasonable accommodation is any change in the work environment or in the way things are customarily done that enables an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities.
• Do employers have to accommodate you? – Yes, unless there is undue hardship or direct threat
• Has to be “reasonable”
• You can ask for more than one!
• Caregivers are not entitled to accommodations, but you could still ask
• Accommodations can change over time
• When do you ask? – As soon as you realize you need one
• How do you ask? – Check employer’s policies
• Whom do you ask? – Check policies, may be supervisor and/or human resources
• A resource to provide to your manager http://workplacetransitions.org/
Worried you are being treated differently because of your illness or that your employer is not willing to provide a reasonable accommodation?
You have options to file a complaint. You can also contact Cancer & Careers directly to review your situation and get feedback and suggestions. Consulting with a lawyer who specializes in employment law is also an option. Here are some tips for dealing with potential discrimination:
• Talk to your employer's Human Resources Department or contact
• File a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for ADA-related concerns: https://www.eeoc.gov/employees/charge.cfm
• File with the Department of Labor (DOL) for FMLA-related complaints: https://www.dol.gov/whd/#
• Consult legal aid or an attorney: http://www.mainebar.org/page/AttorneyRequest
Resources to help you make your decision about when and how to work through cancer:
- Cancer and Careers provides interactive tools, educational events, support and answers to questions about taking time off from work, financial concerns, returning to work, even updating your resume and changing careers.
- Oncology social workers at your treatment center are also great resources for support around these concerns.
We are here for you to help problem-solve and provide emotional support as you navigate working, disability, and life with cancer.
Carrie Maynard, LCSW, OSW-C
Oncology Social Worker
Maine Medical Center Cancer Institute