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How to support an employee with cancer

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In the United States, 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women will get cancer during their lifetime.1 Fortunately, today’s treatments are better than ever, and more people with cancer survive and live longer. The nation’s population of cancer survivors now exceeds 18 million — and a third of them are working age.2

But people who want to work while dealing with cancer can experience a negative impact on their employment and income.3 When your business has an employee with cancer or returning to work after cancer treatment, you can support their changing needs at work so they can prioritize their health while maintaining their financial stability.

Tips for supporting an employee throughout their cancer care journey

People with cancer can face a great financial burden if they — or their caregivers —work fewer hours, stop working, or lose their health coverage. If a person’s income decreases and their medical spending increases, stress and low self-esteem can worsen their cancer symptoms, and their quality of life can diminish. In extreme cases of financial strain like bankruptcy, patients may stop treatments or medications — putting themselves at greater risk of premature death.4

Since a growing number of people with cancer need or want to work, employers are increasingly looking for ways to balance their employee’s jobs with their cancer care journey, from diagnosis to remission.

Download support tips

Listen and have empathy for their emotional state

This is a life-changing time for your employee. Be understanding of the varied emotions they may be experiencing. Everyone reacts differently to a cancer diagnosis, and their feelings may change frequently. Even after treatment has ended, cancer survivors are coping with side effects and learning how to adjust to the changes they’ve gone through.

When your employee talks to you about their cancer, listen and respond with empathy. Don’t give them advice or share stories about other people who’ve had cancer.

One source of strain for people with cancer can be trying to balance work demands with treatment or recovery. Support from human resources, supervisors, and co-workers can help your employee perform their work and feel better emotionally.

More people are surviving cancer — the cancer death rate dropped 32% from 1991 to 2019

Comply with employment laws

The cancer death rate fell 32% from 1991 to 2019 — yet people with cancer may face discrimination in the workplace because of assumptions about their ability to work during or after cancer treatment.6 Some people who continue to work with cancer can be as productive on the job as other workers.

Still, your employee may need to modify their work schedule or responsibilities or take some time off work for cancer treatments.

Your employee’s right to equal employment opportunities may be protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. external link, which requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations that aren’t an undue hardship.

If your employee decides to take a leave of absence, help them find information about:

  • Company sick leave and paid time off
  • State disability insurance
  • State paid family leave
  • Federal unpaid leave (Family and Medical Leave Act)
Cancer affects millions of Americans — 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women will get cancer during their lifetime

Make a work plan

Throughout their cancer care journey, your employee may need help navigating the workplace so they can continue to work while taking care of their health. By being flexible, you can help your employee stay in the workforce — while retaining your top talent.

Review with them their job responsibilities and your company’s policies and benefits. Ask them what accommodations they need to help them do their job. If possible, include an HR representative in meetings between the employee and their supervisor. Check in regularly to adjust accommodations to their changing needs.

Possible workplace accommodations:

  • Working from home
  • Flextime
  • Modified schedule
  • Exchanging shifts
  • Change in job duties
  • Special equipment at work
  • Graduated return to work plan
  • Additional breaks
  • Access to a private place to take medication
  • Designated parking space near the entrance
Almost 6 million cancer survivors in the U.S. today are working age.

Share resources

Connect the employee to specialized resources in your company or community. Some people may first look to an HR representative for help navigating their health coverage. If necessary, direct them to contact their health plan for additional assistance.

Resources you can share:

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1“Cancer Facts & Figures 2022,” American Cancer Society, 2022, page 14.
2American Cancer Society, “Cancer Treatment & Survivorship Facts & Figures 2022–2024,” January 1, 2022.
3Victoria S. Blinder, MD, MSc, and Francesca M. Gany, MD, MSc, “Impact of Cancer on Employment,” Journal of Clinical Oncology, February 1, 2020.
4See note 3.
5“Cancer Facts & Figures 2022,” American Cancer Society, 2022, page 2.
6See note 5.
7See note 1.
Tips adapted from “Cancer in the Workplace: HR Tip Sheet,” National Business Group on Health and American Cancer Society, November 2017.