A cancer diagnosis can be terrifying and overwhelming on many levels.  The employee must determine her medical benefits and treatment options as well as define how her treatment may affect her work.  It can be very difficult to share the news with one’s  boss and co-workers.  There is no correct way to disclose the diagnosis of breast cancer and it is important for employees to choose the way that feels best for them. Remember that while supervisors have a legal obligation not to disclose confidential employee information, co-workers do not.  Employees may wish to inform management first, while other times, they are the last to know. While telling co-workers is not necessary, they can be a source of support both emotionally and with personal assistance.  Some colleagues organize meal prepartion, asisstance with chores, fundraising or donating their sick days to the individual who has breast cancer.

Employers are required by Federal law to provide “reasonable accomodations” for anyone with a disability.  According to the Americans wth Disabilities Act (ADA) cancer qualifies as a disability when the disease or its effects of treatment hinder an individual’s “major life activities”.  These accomodations can vary greatly, depending upon a person’s need.  According to the U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), examples of accomodations include:

  • Time off for physician appointments and to recover from treatment
  • Short breaks during the work day to recover
  • An altered work schedule
  • Temporarily assigning some job tasks to another employee
  • Changes to the workplace environment, such as temperature changes or workstation changes to insure comfort
  • A work-from home arangement

According to the EEOC, the word REASONABLE is key. Employees with breast cancer can’t make requests of their employer that would cause them “undue hardship”. The term “undue hardship” is different for every company. Smaller companies who have more difficulty operating without a key individual for a period of time and someone with unique or very specific skills who is not able to be at work regularly could pose a problem for some employers.  However, most employers are willing to provide accomodations as much as possible.

Under the ADA, cancer qualifies on a case by case basis.  The act protects individuals from losing their jobs due to disability and sets guidelines for employers regarding required accomodations.  The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) also protects the jobs of people with a cancer diagnosis, however not everyone qualifies under FMLA.  An employee must have worked for the employer for at least 12 months prior to the FMLA request and have worked more than 1250 hours in that calendar year. In addition, employers who have fewer than 50 employees do not have to follow FMLA regulations.

Source: About.com

If you have an employee with breast cancer, it may be very helpful to ask her what she needs or wants. Does she want her colleagues to know? Does she want to take time or off or work reduced hours? What kind of accomodations does she need? As treatment progresses, she may have a better idea of how she feels or if she is responding to treatment. Employers need to be flexible with the plan whenever possible as the employee’s needs may change. The EAP can also be a great resource for the employee both by providing emotional support and brief counseling and also locating other resources to help her.

Sometimes an employee does not respond to treatment and the disease spreads or becomes very aggressive. Some employees choose to work until they are very ill, others do not. At this point, co-workers may be very upset about a friend and colleague’s deteriorating condition and may begin anticipatory grieving if she is terminally ill.  While it can be very helpful and healing to meet as a staff group to process feelings, employers should be careful how this is handled.  A group meeting could either be very helpful to the ill employee or perceived by her as inappropriate and make her very uncomfortable.  It may be helpful to consult with the employee assistance program about the best course of action depending upon the situation.  If an employee does pass away, the EAP can be very helfpful by assisting with a grief group and helping employees process their feelings in a confidential and safe environment.  The EAP can also help the employer reach out to the family and plan a memorial at work if desired and appropriate.