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Employees with Cancer

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It is estimated that 11.7 million Americans have a history of cancer and approximately 1,596,700 new cancer diagnoses are expected to be made this year [1]. Of these new diagnoses, approximately 40% are working aged adults. Studies have shown that after cancer treatment, 63.5% of cancer survivors returned to work after treatment. Today, many of those individuals diagnosed return to work and have relatively same productivity rates as other workers.

It is important for an employer to understand the obstacles that an employee may encounter and make reasonable accommodations for them. Studies have shown that adult cancer patients who were not offered information about managing work issues associated with their cancer were 4 times more likely to report deterioration in their working lives.

Legally, employers and employees are protected under the ADA and should know what type of information related to cancer and treatment can be disclosed.

Employment Obstacles

Employees that are currently undergoing treatment or who have had cancer in the past could be experiencing a number of emotional and medical challenges that could change their work life. It is important to keep in mind that these challenges vary in severity depending on the site/type of the cancer, age of diagnosis, and severity of the treatment. Individuals who have had cancer in the past could be experiencing depression, fatigue, cardiovascular disease, visual impairment, and impaired attention span. Employees that are currently undergoing treatment could be experiencing issues including a need for time off of work, depression, fatigue, memory loss, stress, problems with temperature regulation, and vision changes. [2]

Workplace Accommodations

Simple changes can be made in a workplace environment to facilitate an individual that has been diagnosed with cancer and is undergoing treatment.

Time Adjustments

A change in work hours is the most common request for individuals undergoing treatment for cancer. Flexible and/or reduced work hours during treatment as well as a phased return upon completion of treatment can help adjustment in the workplace. The following time accommodations may also be needed:

  • Allow leave for doctor’s appointments
  • Allow time to recuperate after treatment
  • Periodic breaks
  • Adjustments to work schedule

Job Adjustments

The following changes may be needed to an individuals job to ease transition back to the workplace.

  • Permission to work from home
  • Reassignment to another job
  • Reallocation or redistribution of marginal tasks to another employee

Physical Office Adjustments

Slight adjustments to the physical work environment may be needed to accommodate individuals who have undergone or who are going through cancer treatment. These include:


  • Peer support
The positive attitude of coworkers is one of the most important factors that cancer survivors noted that made the transition back to the workplace easier.
  • Support from the employer
Employers can educate managers and co-workers on how to offer support and accommodations to those undergoing treatment. [4]

The ADA and Employees with Cancer

Protection under the ADA

Title 1 of the ADA#Title I: Employment prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in a workplace setting and protects the employee and employer. This section of the ADA can be applied to individuals with cancer when the diagnosis is considered a disability.

When is Cancer a Disability According to the ADA

Cancer is considered a disability on a case-by-case basis, but follows the following guidelines:

  1. “Cancer is considered a disability when it or its side effects substantially limit one or more of a person’s major life activities”.
  2. Cancer may also be considered a disability if it occurred in the past, but is now limiting life activities.
  3. Cancer is considered a disability if it does not significantly affect a person’s major life activities, but the employer acts as if it does. [5]

External links


  1. American Cancer society. Cancer Facts and Figures. 2011.
  2. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Questions and Answers about Cancer in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Last modified Jan 19,2011. Accessed December 8, 2011.
  3. Mary S. McCabe. Helping Cancer Survivors Return to Work. 2011, Volume 2, Issue 16.
  4. Strauser D, Feuerstein M, Chan F, Arango J, da Silva Cardoso E, Chiu, C. Vocational Services associated with competitive employment in 18-25 year old cancer survivors. J Cancer Surviv. 2010;4:179-186
  5. Cancer Care. Ask Cancer Care: Workplace Issues. Updated 2011. Accessed December 8, 2011.
  6. National Cancer institute. Chemotherapy Side Effects Fact Sheets. NIH. Accessed December 8, 2011