Working During Breast Cancer Treatment

bald women in chemotherapy at her desk at work
What do you need to know about choosing to work during cancer treatment?. Nancy Louie/Getty Images

Will you be able to work while you going through treatment for breast cancer? What are some issues to consider when making this important decision? And if you feel you will be limited in some way or unable to work altogether, what options are available?

Can You Work During Treatment for Breast Cancer?

You have a breast cancer diagnosis and a treatment plan, your calendar is filling up quickly, and you feel like you've taken on a second job! Perhaps you're wondering if you ​can keep working while you're in treatment for breast cancer. Consider your health, your treatment plan, and your financial situation and then decide on whether or not continuing to work will work for you.

The choice to work is a very personal decision that will be different for everyone. Some people feel tied to their jobs for income or health insurance coverage. Others have greater flexibility in making this choice. People also experience breast cancer much differently, and how they feel during treatment has nothing to do with their strength or pain tolerance. Some people are surprised to find that working through breast cancer treatment is easier than they thought, and others, including many who would have said they continue to work prior to their diagnosis, find it impossible.

How to Consider Balancing Work and Treatment

Before you start treatment, talk to your doctor about the kind of work you do. Describe your tasks and responsibilities as well as how much time you are normally at work. Ask your doctor or nurse practitioner about possible side effects you should expect with treatment, and how these can be managed. Be realistic about your present health, the stage of your cancer, and other commitments you may have away from the job. Remember that effects of treatment are cumulative and that as you near the end of treatment, you may need a block of unbroken time in which to recover. With these factors in mind, consider your ability to keep working while in treatment for breast cancer.

Give a Little, Take a Little

Be sure you know your employer's sick leave policy and your workplace rights before you tell your boss about your diagnosis. Prepare a list of ways that you might compromise and still fulfill your obligations. Be clear that you want to keep working, but may need a reasonable accommodation in order to work. Ask about:

  • Telecommuting or working from your home. Even if you work from home only one or two days a week, telecommuting can reduce your travel time to and from work giving you more time to rest. Plus, when you work at home you can skip some of your routines and even work in your pajamas if you wish.
  • Cross training and sharing your work duties with other employees. It's said that cancer takes a village, and sometimes that includes a village to help you complete your duties at work. Some people hesitate to ask others to help, fearing that people will be offended. In actuality, fellow employees may welcome the opportunity to pick up some of the slack for you. One of the most common complaints among family members, friends, and fellow employees is the sense of helplessness they feel. In assisting you in completing your tasks these other employees will have a great way to reduce their feeling of helplessness.
  • Flextime meaning changing your work hours or cutting back on hours. Fatigue gradually worsens during breast cancer treatment and often becomes limiting during radiation therapy. Sometimes simply starting work a few hours later, or shortening your work days can make a big difference.

    Taking a Break From Work

    Sometimes the side effects of treatment or cancer itself will get the best of your energy and health. If that happens, you may decide not to work through treatment. Talk with your supervisor and the human resources department about taking a leave, or getting short-term disability insurance to tide you over for a while. Speak with your doctor about how you're feeling and ask if you would qualify for disability. If you settle on quitting work, for now, look into Social Security Disability Insurance so you will still be covered for medical expenses.

    Reconsider Your Decision Over Time

    None of us can predict exactly how we will feel during cancer treatment, so take some time at intervals during your treatment to rethink your decision. You may decide that you were overzealous and that working won't work for you. In contrast, you may have taken off time, but feel bored and anxious to return to your job. Many of us find social support among those we work with, and what appeared to be a time of peace away from the grind may instead feel lonely. Be flexible, and give yourself the benefit of being able to change your mind.

    Working Through Breast Cancer Treatment

    Many people find it possible to work through breast cancer treatment, though the majority say that they were bothered by cancer fatigue and needed the extra help of some form. If you've confided in our co-workers, they can help support you on the job. On days that you need extra help, they might give you a ride or help with demanding tasks, while on other days when you're at home, they may be willing to bring work to you. If some of your co-workers are uncomfortable around you, just try to let it go. Pick your battles carefully and hoard your energy for important things.

    Helpful Resources

    Become familiar with the provisions provided by the Americans With Disabilities Act. Employers, at least in companies of a certain size, are required to provide "reasonable accommodations." The organization Cancer and Careers has a multitude of resources and can provide expert advice to help people thrive in the workplace during cancer treatment.

    Bottom Line on Working During Breast Cancer Treatment

    The choice whether to work or not during breast cancer treatment is a very personal decision and may depend on your need for your income and/or insurance. It is hard at the start of treatment to know how you will feel several months down the line, so whatever decision you make, be prepared to reevaluate your decision later on. Those who find they are unable to work may have options with a short-term or long-term disability, and private or company disability possibilities. Social Security Disability Insurance may also be an option for some people.

    If you do choose to work, it's helpful to share the load with others. This is a time in which you do not need to be the strong one or to show off your courage and suck it up. Breast cancer treatment is challenging and your most important job is to take care of yourself, in whatever way needed, throughout your treatment.

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