Employment Rights for Cancer Survivors

The employment concerns of cancer survivors have changed notably during the past generation. In the 1970s, less than one-half of those diagnosed with cancer survived more than five years. Treatment options were few, often disabling, and commonly ineffective. Myths about cancer prevailed. Consequently, many survivors experienced substantial problems obtaining and retaining employment.

Significant medical, social, and legal progress has extended and enhanced the lives of millions of cancer survivors. Advances in cancer treatment fostered changes in attitudes about cancer, which in turn have led to a considerable expansion of the legal rights of cancer survivors in the workplace.

A 2006 national survey of cancer survivors (Breakaway from Cancer, 2006) found that most employers appear to be highly sensitive and accommodating to the needs of employees who have cancer or who are caregivers for cancer survivors. Three out of five survivors reported receiving co-worker support, such as help with work or random acts of kindness. Survivors and caregivers reported very low incidences of negative reactions from their employers and co-workers. The most common negative reaction, reported by one in five survivors, was that an employer gave a survivor less work. Other consequences, such as being fired or laid off (6%), denied a raise or promotion (7%), and denied health insurance benefits (4%), were far less common. Employees who worked in an office environment faced fewer cancer-related problems than did employees who worked in retail, restaurant, or factory settings.

Although the attitudes of cancer survivors and their co-workers have changed, one factor has remained constant over the past generation— most cancer survivors want to, and in fact, are able to perform their jobs and return to work after diagnosis. Whether a survivor continues to work during treatment or returns to work after treatment, and if so, whether that survivor’s diagnosis or treatment will result in working limitations, depends on many factors.

They include the survivor’s age, stage at diagnosis, financial status, education, and access to health insurance and transportation, as well as the physical demands of the job and the presence of any other chronic health conditions. Medical treatment decisions that consider quality of life and the shift towards providing cancer treatment in outpatient settings have contributed to the increasing number of survivors who can work during their treatment.

This publication describes your legal rights relating to employment. It suggests ways to avoid cancer-related employment problems and describes steps to consider if you feel you have been treated differently because of your cancer experience.

How Employment Discrimination Laws Protect Cancer Survivors »
What Can I Do to Avoid Discrimination? »
What Can I Do to Enforce My Legal Rights? »

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