Breast Cancer Work Rights and Legal Provisions

A woman works in an office.
A woman works in an office. kupicoo/Getty Images

When you're facing a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, it's hard to know how to approach things at work. Knowing what to say, what kind of accommodations to ask for, and how to take medical leave can all be important for your treatment and recovery.

You may not want to think about your job instead of your health right now, but income is important, and so is the health insurance you get through your job.

Before divulging your diagnosis, though, take the time to research the company's policies, including medical leave and flex time. It may also make sense to find an office mentor who has already navigated the maze of accommodations and disability pay.

Telling the Boss and Colleagues

Typically, sharing life news with those at work isn't difficult, but when talking about a breast cancer diagnosis, the words can get caught in your mouth.

First, don't rush it. There is no reason to talk to the boss or colleagues so soon after receiving the news. Wait until it feels as comfortable as possible.

There is no right or wrong way to divulge a cancer diagnosis. Some people might feel more comfortable talking to their boss or supervisor first, avoiding the miscommunication that can stem from the office gossip mill. Consider setting up a meeting or a lunch, so you can be sure to have her full attention. Also, remember that discussions about health between a boss and employee are protected. A supervisor has a legal obligation to keep the information private. However, co-workers do not have the same obligation.

Talking to colleagues about a cancer diagnosis isn't a necessity; however, co-workers can be an unexpected source of support. It's not uncommon for colleagues to provide needed support for those with breast cancer. This support may include personal assistance on the job, donated vacation days, or even a fundraising campaign.​

Be prepared for questions. Colleagues might inquire about treatment plans and side effects. Don't feel obligated to share information you'd rather keep private. A supervisor or boss might want to know what accommodations might be necessary. The American Cancer Society suggests having a plan in mind before talking to your boss. But for those who aren't sure yet, don't be afraid to simply say, "I'm don't know yet. Can I get back to you?"

Asking for Accommodations

Employers are required by federal law to provide "reasonable accommodations" for anyone with a disability. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), cancer qualifies as a disability when the disease or its effects on treatment hinder an individual's "major life activities." (See the following section for more about the qualifications of cancer as a disability.)

These accommodations can vary greatly, depending on a person's need. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), examples of accommodations include:

  • Time off for physician appointments and to recover from treatment
  • Short breaks during the workday to rest and recover
  • An altered work schedule
  • Temporarily assigning some job tasks to another employee
  • Changes to the workplace environment, such as temperature changes or workstation changes to ensure comfort
  • A work-from-home arrangement

According to the EEOC, the word reasonable is key. Employees with breast cancer can't make requests of their employer that would cause them "undue hardship." The term "undue hardship" is different for every company, but the majority of these accommodations for individuals with any disability—not just cancer—cost companies very little.

Survey results by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans found that employers were typically quite willing to provide accommodations to their employees with breast cancer.

  • 85% allowed reduced hours
  • 79% allowed a flexible schedule
  • 62% agreed to extra breaks for resting and recovering
  • 60% altered deadlines or other timetables/schedules
  • 58% assigned different work
  • 47% allowed telecommuting
  • 28% allowed job sharing

Legal Rights of Disability and FMLA

Under the ADA, cancer qualifies on a case-by-case basis. The act protects individuals from losing their jobs due to disability and sets guidelines for employers regarding required accommodations. The U.S. EEOC, which enforces the ADA, offers the following example of a woman with breast cancer who would qualify for job protection under the act.

"Following a lumpectomy and radiation for aggressive breast cancer, a computer sales representative experienced extreme nausea and constant fatigue for six months. She continued to work during her treatment, although she frequently had to come in later in the morning, work later in the evening to make up the time, and take breaks when she experienced nausea and vomiting. She was too exhausted when she came home to cook, shop or do household chores and had to rely almost exclusively on her husband and children to do these tasks. This individual's cancer is a disability because it substantially limits her ability to care for herself."

Disability Pay

Many companies offer disability pay for seriously ill or injured employees, but often these plans require an employee contribution.

Talk to a human resources representative about disability pay and how to collect if your employer offers a plan.

FMLA

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) also protects the jobs of people with a cancer diagnosis. However, not everyone qualifies for FMLA protection.

To qualify, you must have:

  • Worked for the employer for at least 12 months prior to the FMLA request
  • Worked more than 1,250 hours in that calendar year

In addition, employers who have fewer than 50 employees do not have to follow FMLA regulations.

If protected by the FMLA, you can to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave from work. The act allows employees with serious medical illness, such as breast cancer, to use their leave "intermittently." That means you could take off one day each week or take two weeks off to recover from surgery while saving the remaining weeks to use during radiation or chemotherapy treatments.

If you feel your rights have been violated or you've been dismissed from a job due to your diagnosis, you need to file a charge "within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory action," according to the EEOC. The EEOC can be reached at (800) 669-4000.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Workplace Fairness. Medical Privacy.

  2. Americans with Disabilities Act. Americans with Disabilities Act Title III Regulations. Updated January 17, 2017.

  3. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Americans with Disabiities Act: A Primer for Small Business. Types of Reasonable Accommodations.

  4. WellPoint. Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease. Facilitating Full Employment Opportunity for Employees with Cancer: A Call to Action.

  5. U.S. Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division. Fact Sheet #28: The Family and Medical Leave Act.

Additional Reading
  • American Cancer Society. Americans with Disabilities Act: Information for People Facing Cancer. Updated 11/21/14.
  • American Cancer Society. Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Updated 11/21/14.
  • American Cancer Society. Working During Cancer Treatment. Updated 04/14/14.
  • Hansen, J., Feuerstein, M., Calvio., and C. Olsen. Breast cancer survivors at work. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 2008. 50(7):777-84.
  • Neumark, D., Bradley, C., Henry, M., and B. Dahman. Work continuation while treated for breast cancer: the role of workplace accommodations. Industrial and Labor Relations Review. 2015. 68(8):916-954.
  • Paalman, C. et al. Employment and social benefits up to 10 years after breast cancer diagnosis: a population-based study. British Journal of Cancer. 2016. 114(1):81-7.