The number of cancer survivors in the United States has grown to 15.5 million and is expected to increase to 20.3 million by 2026. Read on to learn how employers can support their employees during their cancer treatment.


Thanks to more sensitive diagnostic testing, earlier diagnosis and new treatments, the number of cancer survivors in the U.S. has grown to 15.5 million, and that number is projected to increase to 20.3 million by 2026. In addition, about 1.7 million Americans are projected to be diagnosed with cancer this year. A large percentage of these cancer patients and survivors are still active members of the workforce and the numbers have the potential to increase even more as people remain in the workforce beyond age 65.

Some people with cancer choose to continue working during treatment. Reasons for continuing to work can be psychological as well as financial. For some, their job or career is a big part of the foundation of their identity. A survey conducted by the non-profit Cancer and Careers found that 48% of those surveyed said they continued to work during treatment because they wanted to keep their lives as normal as possible, and 38% said they worked so that they felt productive. Being in the workforce also provides a connection to a supportive social system for many people and boosts their self-esteem and quality of life.

There also are financial benefits to the employer when employees continue to work during cancer treatment. Turnover costs, including hiring temporary employees and training replacement employees, are high. The cost of turnover for employees who earn $50,000 per year or less (which is approximately 75% of U.S. workers) average 20% of salary. For senior and executive level employees, that cost can reach 213% of salary. In addition, it can be costly to lose the experience, expertise, contacts and customer relationships employees have built.

This raises the question for employers: How can I support employees who choose to work while undergoing cancer treatment? Providing that support can be complex as employers work to balance their legal responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities and Family and Medical Leave Acts with the privacy requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

When an employee chooses to share his or her diagnosis with a supervisor or HR representative, employers should view this disclosure as the beginning of a conversation with the employee taking the lead. (It’s up to the employee what information he or she wants to disclose about the diagnosis and treatment and with whom the information can be shared within the organization.) Here are four ways employers can support employees who are getting cancer treatment.

Help employees understand what benefits are available

The first step an employer should take is to refer the employee to the organization’s human resources manager (or someone who handles HR matters if the organization is smaller and does not have a human resources department) so that person can share information about all available benefits and pertinent policies. Provide details on:

  • Medical and prescription drug coverages, including deductibles, co-pays, precertification requirements, network healthcare providers and plan and lifetime maximums
  • Leave policies
  • Flexible scheduling and remote work options, if available
  • Employee assistance programs
  • Community resources and support groups

Offer professional guidance

Offering patient navigator or case management services can also be beneficial. Navigators and case managers can provide a range of services including:

  • Connecting employees with healthcare providers
  • Arranging second opinions
  • Providing evidence-based information on the type of cancer the employee has been diagnosed with and options for treatments
  • Help filing health insurance claims, reviewing medical bills and handling medical paperwork
  • Coordinating communication and medical records among members of the treatment team
  • Attending appointments with employees
  • Answering employee questions about treatments and managing side effects

Make accommodations

Workplace accommodations are another key pillar of support for employees working during cancer treatment. In addition to flexible scheduling, to accommodate medical appointments and help employees manage side effects like fatigue and nausea, and the option of working from home, workplace accommodations can include:

  • Temporary assignment to a less physically taxing job
  • Substituting video conferencing or online meetings for travel, which can be difficult for employees dealing with fatigue or a suppressed immune system, and can make it hard to attend needed medical appointments
  • Leave sharing for employees who have used all their paid time off and can’t afford to take unpaid leave. Some organizations offer leave banks or pools where employees can “deposit” or donate some of their vacation days for employees dealing with a serious illness to use.

Employees may continue to need accommodations after treatment ends if they face late side effects such as fatigue, difficulty concentrating, numbness caused by nerve damage or heart or lung problems. Continuing job and schedule modifications can help mitigate the situation.

Ask for employee input

An often overlooked part of supporting employees who are working during cancer treatment is asking the employee what types of support he or she needs and prefers. Employees can share any medical restrictions related to their condition, what types of accommodations or equipment will help them do their job, and what schedule changes will allow them to attend needed appointments and recover from treatment. This should be an ongoing conversation because the employee’s needs are likely to change over the course of treatment and recovery.

SOURCE: Varn, M. (21 September 2018) “How employers can support employees during cancer treatment” (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/how-employers-can-support-employees-during-cancer-treatment?brief=00000152-14a5-d1cc-a5fa-7cff48fe0001