The World Health Organization estimates that over 1.5 million women of working age live with cancer in the United States. Public health studies show that almost half of people diagnosed with cancer (46%) each year are of working age (20 to 64 years old). All aspects of their lives get impacted by the disease, including how they perform their jobs, interact with coworkers and clients, and what their future prospects are.
Women with cancer may continue working to not lose their position or income. They may also continue working because jobs provide people a sense of purpose – something to focus on other than difficult health issues.
With the number of people diagnosed with cancer increasing every year, it is vital to make sure that employees with cancer can maintain their careers and live fulfilling lives. In some cases, women might require workplace accommodations and additional protections against workplace discrimination, all the more poignant with the disruption Covid-19 has placed on both employers and employees.
Statistics on Women with Cancer in the Workplace
As note, the World Health Organization estimates that over 1.5 million women of working age live with cancer in the United States.
Out of these, the most common cancer diagnoses are:
- Breast cancer
- Thyroid cancer
- Colorectal cancer
- Lung cancer
- Cervical cancer
Balancing Work and Cancer Treatment
Dealing with a disease as serious as cancer is a challenge on its own, but when you also have to work and balance your treatments, it can be overwhelming. It’s essential to consider the following points:
- How will your treatment plan constrain or interrupt your work on the job?
- What type of workplace accommodations will you need?
- Can you take time off for treatments or doctor’s appointments?
- What should you do if your employer appears to be acting discriminatorily?
Women diagnosed with cancer may choose to continue working while receiving treatment; many women are able to keep their employment and even find ways to increase the energy they put into work when being treated for cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, 69% of cancer survivors declared that maintaining a work routine helped them through recovery.
Some of the ways to take care of yourself while working during treatment include:
- Eating healthy
- Getting enough sleep each night
- Doing frequent, short work breaks
- Talking to a therapist
- Taking time for yourself each day
- Finding support from your employer and coworkers
- Becoming an advocate for cancer care at work (encouraging coworkers to undergo regular cancer screenings, especially breast cancer screening and cervical cancer screening, and educating them about known cancer risk factors)
Patients may also choose not to work during treatment or only do so part-time due to side effects from treatments like chemotherapy that can cause fatigue and nausea.
The success of working during treatment depends on the type of cancer being treated, the stage, general physical health status, and the severity of treatment.
The type of job someone has can also affect their ability to work while undergoing treatment: those who have physically demanding jobs may not be able to work during chemotherapy or radiation therapy; those who are on a strict schedule that requires them to speak with clients may require more accommodations.
Around 20% of cancer survivors have work-related limitations due to their disease and treatment even until five years later. Workplace accommodations for an employee with cancer may not be necessary, but they could greatly help them work through therapy while maintaining a job.
Some of these accommodation responses may include:
- Flexible scheduling for doctor appointments (the possibility of night-shift work)
- Adjusting workloads if they are unable or unwilling to come into work during treatment periods (such as reducing the number of weekly hours)
- Offering alternative work arrangements for those who cannot come into the workplace (such as telecommuting, bringing a laptop to treatment, etc.)
- Modifying equipment or devices
- Offering reasonable breaks to take medications or rest
- Adjusting the temperature of the workplace
- Creating an onsite health care provider in case of emergency
- Offering rehabilitative services
An employer is obligated to provide reasonable workplace accommodations for any employee with disability-related cancer treatment if these accommodations do not pose an undue hardship on the employer. It would be best if you took the time to research your rights regarding unpaid leave and what the Department of Labor recommends.
In addition, there are federal protections for employees with disabilities that make it illegal to discriminate against someone based on their cancer diagnosis.
Workplace Discrimination Against Women With Cancer
Unfortunately, all too often, people with cancer are discriminated against in the workplace. This happens because cancer still carries a stigma in society, and people do not understand how cancer affects daily life.
Women with cancer face many workplace discrimination issues, such as being passed over for promotions and wage increases while also being overlooked for career opportunities. Women diagnosed with cancer are more likely to be fired from their jobs than women without a history of cancer. And one in four women reports that they were discriminated against at work due to their diagnosis.
What’s more, women with cancer often have to fight against the gender bias in our culture. Women who cannot fulfill their duties at work because of cancer treatment may be seen as less committed than men would be in their position. This gender discrimination leads to unfair treatment and lower pay.
How to Address Discrimination
If you believe that you are being discriminated against based on your cancer diagnosis, you can take steps to address this. Familiarize yourself with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commision (EEOC) and prevailing laws https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/cancer-workplace-and-ada.
If someone discriminates against you, they must understand the implications of their actions and how destructive those behaviors can be. You may want to have a conversation with them to make sure they know what discrimination means for women with cancer.
It’s also helpful to learn as much as you can about how your company handles discrimination complaints and how to file one.
There are legal avenues you can take if the harassment continues or gets worse, such as filing a complaint with your company’s HR department or choosing to pursue litigation against the individual or your company in court. This, again, would involve the EEOC.
Maintain a Good Relationship with Your Coworkers
You are not obligated to disclose your diagnosis to your coworkers. However, you may decide to if you are feeling physically and emotionally drained from work. It could help to disclose your diagnosis so that your coworkers know how best to support you in the workplace.
If you decide to share your health issues with them, make sure they understand what cancer means for women who work. You want them to have a good understanding of the challenges you may be facing.
A solid place to start is to tell them about any accommodation needs or work restrictions that can come up during treatment. It’s also helpful to disclose that you may not be as available for socializing during or after work hours and that it will take some time before they can see changes in your physical appearance.
Sometimes, your coworkers might feel uncomfortable asking for help and understanding the impact of your diagnosis on your day-to-day work life. It’s important to be open and honest, as well as to have patience. Your coworkers want to help but likely don’t know how best to support someone with cancer who is working full-time. Help them help you get through the most challenging moments of your treatment.
Maintaining a job while getting treated for cancer is a challenge, especially for women with cancer. They face a range of difficulties, including discrimination, physical limitations, and difficulty keeping up with work demands.
If you are facing any discrimination, remember that you have rights. Your employer is required to make accommodations for you and protect your privacy.
Similarly, if there are any issues with physical limitations in the workplace, speak up about them early on so they can be addressed right away – don’t wait until it’s too difficult to continue working as usual!
Women need to be as open and honest as possible about their diagnosis and what it means in the workplace so that everyone is on the same page. Women should also ask questions of her employer to make sure they know what accommodations she needs while working through cancer treatment. These accommodations have to be reasonable and suitable for both the female employee and the employer.
Unfortunately, we are still not at the stage where we can treat cancer quickly and effectively so that it doesn’t affect anyone too much. If you’d like to contribute to the war against cancer, take a look at our campaigns that could benefit from your donation.