Where Work Comes Into Play

People who are diagnosed with breast cancer have to make several decisions. Not only regarding their treatment options but how the treatment will impact their careers. This will also affect women that have children or care for disabled family members in the home. Understanding how breast cancer treatment will affect your work schedule and your personal life is necessary for effective planning.

Understanding the Impact of Treatment

Some women may find that recovering from their breast cancer surgery requires only a few days off from work for the physical aspects of healing, but stress and anxiety of coping with the diagnosis itself may require additional leave. In addition, ongoing treatments after surgery such as chemotherapy, radiation or hormone therapy may require shortened work days, alternate work schedules or the option to work from home following treatment.

In order to estimate how much time you may potentially need off from work, the American Cancer Society recommends that you ask your treatment team these questions:1

  • Is it possible to work during my chemotherapy and radiation treatments?
  • How much time will I need to recover from surgery?
  • Can I return to my current position or will I need to adjust my duties or work hours?
  • What kinds of activities should I avoid?
  • What information do I need to provide to my employer prior to or after surgery and other treatments?

It is important to realize that recovery time will vary from person to person. Some people may have longer recovery times or have significant reactions to chemotherapy, radiation or hormonal treatments that are unexpected. Talk to your employer about the policies and notifications that are needed for all types of medical leave from work.

The ADA And Breast Cancer

The ADA or Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990 and was further amended in 2008. It protects employees from discrimination by an employer because of a disability. This law is in effect for all kinds of employees including those in the private sector, government agencies or unions. Not all breast cancer patients will meet the criteria for disability to be protected under this act. In general, the ADA protects those with a physical or mental impairment that limits their ability to perform major functions, has documentation of this impairment in medical records or has another type of qualifying impairment not specified above.

In addition, an employee with a qualifying disability must be able to perform the duties they are assigned when reasonable accommodations are made. This means that an employer must provide access into the workplace for those with disabilities, modify work schedules, and acquire the necessary equipment that allows an employee to continue working in their current position.2

Individuals returning to work from breast cancer treatment may require one or more changes to their work schedule or duties, based on what they can and cannot do. Speaking to your employer and determining your rights protected by the ADA is an important part of self-advocacy. There are other advocates, such as attorneys and union representatives that can act on an employee’s behalf to ensure that all legal requirements are met by the employer. Grievances for failure to follow the ADA can be filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Key Factors for a Successful Return to Work

Returning to work after breast cancer treatment can be a positive step toward “getting back to normal”. Work can be an environment where self-confidence, appreciation and support from colleagues or friends are actually helpful to recovery. Some breast cancer patients have little alternative but to return to work for financial reasons, particularly if they are private pay or have limited health insurance coverage.

A study in Finland found that several factors influenced a cancer patient’s return to work. These include the type of cancer, stage of cancer where those with later stages of cancer had a more difficult return to work, overall health status of the patient, the type of occupation and the physical workload required for the job. The more physically and mentally demanding the job tended to be, the more difficult it was for the cancer patient to return in the same capacity without causing further health problems.3 The same study also found that support from occupational health services and social support from coworkers are very influential in the success of a cancer patient’s return to work


1 American Cancer Society. (2004). A Breast Cancer Journey: Your Personal Guidebook, 2nd Edition. Atlanta: American Cancer Society.

2 Facts About The Americans With Disabilities Act. (n.d.). Retrieved from The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: www.eeoc.gov/facts/fs-ada.html

3 Talskila, T., & Lindbohm, M. L. (2007). Factors Affecting Cancer Survivor’s Employment And Work Ability. Acta Oncologica , 446-451.

This article was originally published on July 27,2012 and last revision and update of it was 9/2/2015.