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Working During Breast Cancer Treatment

Medically reviewed by Mark Levin, M.D.
Updated on February 8, 2022

Breast cancer can affect every aspect of your life, including your interpersonal relationships and your time management. During breast cancer treatment, your energy levels and priorities can shift significantly. That’s why even if you’re a very private person, it may be unrealistic to keep your employer in the dark about all of the changes you’re going through. The personal decision to continue working through breast cancer treatment — or not — will depend on various factors, such as the nature of your job and the state of your mental and physical health.

Stay in the driver’s seat at each stage of your treatment plan by planning and reflecting. That approach will help you to maintain a healthy work-life balance that suits your needs, allows you to attend your doctor’s appointments, and gives you time for recovery.

Managing Side Effects at Work

The side effects of breast cancer treatment can include:

  • Changes to your appearance, such as weight changes and hair loss
  • Emotional struggles, such as depression or mood swings
  • Physical effects, such as heartburn or vision problems

Anticipating side effects can make it easier to cope and get through your workday if you elect not to take time off.

Digestive Issues

Members of MyBCTeam discuss tips for dealing with the side effects of breast cancer treatment during work. Some of the most common symptoms members face include taste changes and gastrointestinal issues.

One member stated, “I started back at work last week. But I’m having trouble finding something to eat at work that won’t upset my stomach. Do any of you notice your stomach going crazy after eating a small amount? I can’t take Imodium constantly ☹️.”

Another member responded, “Stay hydrated. Drink Gatorade, but halve it with water to lower your sugar intake, or try coconut water. I asked a similar question about nausea and the ladies here offered good ideas, such as buttered noodles, crackers, ginger ale, toasted bread, rice crackers, steamed veggies, macaroni salad, Caesar salad, and mashed potatoes (which were my contribution to the list). Yes, I’ve tried them all.”

The member continued, “This past weekend, my stomach was in a knot, and I ended up having to take Imodium, too ☹️. For the runs and bloating I also had a banana, ginger ale, Coke, and Caesar salad. (Two things about Coke: I do not drink it on my chemo day, and it works better if it comes in a glass bottle, according to my doctor.) I hope some of these suggestions help. Stay strong.”

Someone else shared a recipe: “One of my favorites is egg drop soup. Use one carton of chicken broth or stock, one whipped egg, one tablespoon of soy sauce, and one tablespoon of cornstarch. Add the cornstarch to cool broth. (Add it before heating or it’ll clump.) Whisk the mixture and bring it to a soft boil. You want the soup to be steaming, but not bubbling. Next, stir the mixture gently while drizzling in the egg. Boom! You’ve got a yummy, warm, and easily digested protein that helps you stay hydrated. I usually double the recipe.”

Finding foods that you enjoy can make your workday that much more bearable, especially when you’re trying to maintain adequate nutrition and a healthy weight during breast cancer treatment. Don’t feel like you need to stick to a certain meal pattern, though. As long as you’re getting enough protein and choosing foods that you can tolerate, it’s OK to be flexible about your meal timing and snack choices.

Talk to your employer about keeping food at your workstation, and consider nutritional bars or shakes to ensure you’re getting the fuel your body needs.

Talking to Your Boss and Co-Workers

You should never feel obligated to share every detail about your personal life at work. However, disclosing your diagnosis to a few key individuals can help you gain support and understanding before, during, or after breast cancer treatment. Carefully consider who you want to tell and how much information you will share in order to still remain in the driver’s seat of your situation. For the sake of prudence, ask to meet in private and request that your conversation be kept confidential.

Before Treatment

Connecting with others outside your workplace who can relate to your situation may offer you some perspective on potentially stressful conversations — like any discussion about breast cancer with your boss. Unfortunately, not all employers and supervisors are empathetic to the health concerns of their employees.

One member of MyBCTeam shared, “Tomorrow, I have my second biopsy, a core biopsy, so the surgeon can know exactly what we are dealing with. I feel like I’m walking around in the dark, looking for a nightlight. I’m starting to worry about my living expenses, and I don’t even have a surgery date. My boss wants to know how long I will be out of work, and if she needs to hire someone else. How do I answer this question? As if I don’t have enough stress.”

During Treatment

Breast cancer treatment is often unpredictable. While you may want to continue working full-time, you could find yourself needing a break. On the other hand, some people anticipate they will take time off but then find that work is actually a welcome distraction. Either way, keep your employer informed of your plans with regular communication, and give them as much notice as possible when changes occur.

Talk with your health care provider to get the best idea of how much work time you should expect to miss. Finding ways to set up a flexible work environment can make it easier to take things day by day so you can focus on your health. Some ideas to consider that can better facilitate time off (especially time off on short notice) include:

  • Working from home
  • Switching to part-time status
  • Transitioning to an hourly rate

After Treatment

Once you’ve made it through breast cancer treatment, you may want to celebrate — or you may rather just forget about it all together. One member of MyBCTeam commented, “The more you talk about it, the more you think about it, which is majorly depressing. Eventually, you don’t want to think about it as much! If people ask, just say that ‘I had some health issues but am doing great’ and go on.”

Feel free to tailor your post-treatment life to your own liking. You don’t need to answer everyone’s questions surrounding the state of your health or your reasons for taking time off. You might feel pressure to discuss personal health matters with co-workers (or even your boss in some circumstances), but you needn’t act on those feelings. You can choose if, when, what, and how much you want to share about your breast cancer journey, and with whom. Something to consider: Once your treatments are over, getting back to a normal work schedule (even if it’s a “new normal” schedule) might actually be a relief.

Deciding To Take a Step Back

Working through treatment isn’t for everyone. If you need time off, give yourself permission to take it, and try not to brand yourself a failure for needing to slow down.

One MyBCTeam member explained, “Here I was, thinking I could handle chemo and work. Today I realized I made some errors. I feel like cancer is taking everything from me of who I ‘used to be.’ Now I feel less competent. Add this to a list that includes being less active, feeling less attractive, less patient. I’m sorry, but I’m having a ‘feeling sorry for myself’ day.”

Fighting against breast cancer is tough. And though thinking it won’t affect your life or daily routine (including your work) may be a natural — and understandable — defensive reaction, that is a mistake. Learning to be kind to yourself as you deal with breast cancer treatment is essential to survive its inevitable ups and downs.

Job Protections and Disability

If at any point in your journey, you feel you can’t work, learning about employment laws and regulations can empower you. And you’re not alone: Many people with breast and other types of cancer struggle with financial concerns and employment or insurance-related difficulties. Several national governmental protections are in place for people experiencing medical hardships, such as undergoing cancer treatments.

To understand your rights surrounding important topics such as reasonable accommodations and short-term disability assistance:

  • Meet with a representative from your human resources department.
  • Tell your doctor’s office you’d like to speak with a social worker.
  • Visit the Americans With Disabilities website.

Another option is to claim a leave of absence under the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The FMLA doesn’t automatically apply to every worker, but companies with 50 or more employees, public schools, and public agencies must grant employees up to 12 weeks of time off each calendar year to deal with illness — whether that’s for your illness or that of other family members. While the allowed time off is unpaid — unless your employer elects to pay you of their own accord — the FMLA does offer job protection so you can return to your position when you are more able to do so.

Something important to note: You don’t have to take the entire 12 weeks in one continuous stretch. Some people create a flexible schedule with the time allotted. You could take one day off each workweek to allow for medical appointments and post-treatment recovery, for example.

Talk With Others Who Understand

On MyBCTeam, the social network for people with breast cancer and their loved ones, more than 54,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with breast cancer.

Are you living with breast cancer? How has treatment impacted your job or career? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

Updated on February 8, 2022
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Mark Levin, M.D. is a hematology and oncology specialist with over 37 years of experience in internal medicine. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Anastasia Climan, RDN, CDN is a dietitian with over 10 years of experience in public health and medical writing. Learn more about her here.

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