Cancer and Work: How Can I Keep My Job?

In many cases, cancer or any long-term illness can lead to tremendous changes in your life. Keeping your job is one way of maintaining normalcy. Yes, if you are terminal, you most likely qualified for disability, but you should not have to make that choice if you still want to work. A lot will depend on your employer; therefore, the best advice is to be straightforward with your employer from the start. Although you are not required to provide the details, give your employer as much information as you feel is necessary. Initially, much will hinge on your treatment plan, your condition, and your present health. The willingness of your employer to allow a flexible work schedule will make a world of difference.

Trying to keep your health problem to yourself or hiding it from co-workers probably will not work very well. Share your crisis but not the details.

However, no matter what the crisis is or how big a curveball life throws you, you must remain professional if you intend to keep working. Staying focused and getting your work done while you are there will make it easier for your employer to make accommodations for your illness and allow you to keep working. Neither you nor your employer needs the added distractions in the workplace. Granted, when the news first comes out, many of your fellow workers will be in shock and want to console you.

Things will come up – severe reactions to chemotherapy are very common. Be ready to ask your employer for a few days off if that happens. You will be surprised how willing some people are to help in times of crisis. Even if your boss seems difficult to approach, chances are they will understand.

What are my entitlements under Social Security Disability?

First of all, you may not receive disability and continue full-time work. If you earn more than a certain amount per month, you are not eligible. 

The speed at which Social Security decides on your claim depends largely on your illness and whether or not you are terminal. Terminal Illness (TERI) is automatically expedited by the Social Security Administration (SSA) or Disability Determination Services (DDS). There is no need for a claimant to specify on their request, certain conditions trigger expedition, such as:

  • Stage IV Cancer.
  • Mesothelioma.
  • Leukemia.
  • Individuals awaiting transplants (heart, liver, bone marrow, or lung).
  • 30 days in a coma.

SSA also uses a Quick Disability Determination (QDD). Key indicators in your file can also trigger the SSA to send your file to a QDD counselors for an expedited determination. The counselor does NOT need to request a medical evaluation of your file; they can approve your claim immediately. Therefore, your claim may be approved within three weeks to a month but generally within 60 days.

What is the Employee Assistance Program (EAP)?

EAP can help employees and their family members by providing counseling to help deal with the stress of illness, alcoholism, drug problems as well as many other situations. EAP can provide direct access to counselors for the individual or a family member who is having difficulty coping with the repercussions of the problem. For the employee, the counselor can assist with planning and coping.

Some of the benefits of the program are:

  • Direct access, an employee can call a counselor or psychologist directly.
  • Quick response, you can usually get an appointment in a few days.
  • Confidential, your employer is only notified if you ask.
  • 24-hours-a-day assistance.
  • In most cases, EAP is covered by your health care insurance.

The goal of EAP is to help the employee prevent absenteeism.

What accommodations can I ask for at work?

Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the federal enforcement agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEOC), prescribes the reasonable accommodation for persons with cancer. Generally, an employer can provide the following reasonable accommodations for employees with an illness, either temporary or terminal:

  • Temporary leaves for appointments or recuperation.
  • Provide a private area to take medicine or rest.
  • Modify work schedules.
  • Change shifts.
  • Redistribute tasks.
  • Use of the office phone to schedule or re-schedule appointments.
  • Reassignment to a vacant position, if available.
  • Working from home, when feasible.

An employer may ask to see proof of cancer or other illness or an employee may have their doctor or family member request accommodations. However, in most cases, your employer would much rather hear it from you, but it is understandable if you are too emotional.

An employer may not discuss the employee’s illness with fellow workers, even when accommodations such as work schedule changes are being made.

If it is determined that you will be disabled because of your condition and you ask to keep working, try to make as many appointments outside your work hours as possible. And, when you do need to schedule an appointment during work hours, get someone to cover your work during that time and notify your supervisor as discretely as possible.

Remember that what seems like a reasonable accommodation to you, may not be so reasonable for your employer and they are certainly within their rights to deny accommodations that pose an undue hardship on the business or your fellow-workers, or when it presents a safety hazard.

The choice is yours

The choice to continue working may depend on your condition, but as long as you are well enough to work, the choice is yours. How much information you give your employer and fellow workers is also yours. Stay strong, stay professional, and stay working.