Cancer and Discrimination in the Workplace: Your Rights

Last updated: December 2018

As someone who was fully employed in a professional, full-time role before my bladder cancer diagnosis, I’ve been very disheartened by stories I have heard from other cancer patients and survivors regarding their employers.

These included such things as their bosses and co-workers assuming:

  • Their performance would be “below par”.
  • They would use their cancer diagnosis as an “excuse” not to work as hard.
  • They would “always” be absent from work.
  • They would be an “unfair burden” on their co-workers.
  • They wouldn’t be able to concentrate.
  • They would be too emotional.

Some were blatantly overlooked for promotion due to them “living with cancer”. And others I’ve heard of were actually “demoted”.

And so it goes on...

It's your decision

Some of us may choose to “give up” work as we do not feel physically or emotionally able to fulfill our role. That’s our choice.

For others, they may wish to continue or, due to financial necessity, need to continue to work.

Whatever YOU decide, you DO have a choice and cannot be made to leave your employment due to living with cancer.

The numbers

In the US, it’s reported that currently in 2018, a “staggering” approximately 16.5 million people are living with cancer - with numbers rising all the time.

So, that’s one heck of a lot of people who could be affected, either now or in the future. This got me into researching: what rights do we as cancer patients have regarding our employment?

What employees should expect

Most employers do have a “duty of care” that they must make reasonable adjustments to accommodate their workers living with a cancer diagnosis. These can include such things as:

  • Allowing a “phased” return back to work.
  • Allowing the employee to work from home (if it’s feasible).
  • Allowing “time off” to attend Hospital appointments and rehabilitation clinics.
  • Altering the workplace environment, for instance, to accommodate a wheelchair.
  • Allowing the employee to sit, rather than to stand to perform their duties.
  • Additional breaks to go take medication.
  • Additional rest breaks
  • Using a phone to make medical related appointments.

Acts of law that protect cancer patients.

The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) and many regulations in the US protect your right to work and to be treated fairly at work, even if you have cancer. To be covered by these legal protections, you MUST inform your employer fully about your cancer diagnosis.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990, protects employees from unfair treatment at work. However, this only covers private employers with 15 or more employees, state and local governments, employment agencies, and labor unions.

However, every state has a law that regulates, to some degree, disability-based employment discrimination. Some laws clearly don’t allow cancer-based discrimination, while others have never been applied to cancer-based discrimination. State laws also vary as to which employers - public or private, large or small— must obey the law.

So you do need to do your research as to what laws are currently applied in your state.

Seeking advice regarding discrimination

In the first instance, it's always recommended to speak to your direct manager or their superior. Some companies have an HR (Human Resources) department, in which case you can request a meeting with someone from that department to discuss your concerns.

If you feel that the above is not possible, or if you feel that the company is still discriminating against you, you can file a complaint with the federal agency that enforces the ADA, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and/or consult with an employment law attorney. (If state law, but not federal law is violated, contact your state’s equal or civil rights agency.) Check the federal government section of the phone book for the nearest EEOC office.

Thankfully, discrimination is the exception and not the norm. In most cases, employers are very understanding of their employees' needs.

Have you been discriminated against due to your cancer diagnosis?

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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