When you're undergoing cancer treatment, you might be tempted to take a leave of absence from your job. But continuing to work can be good for your mental health, according to Melanie Whetzel, a senior consultant on the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy's Job Accommodation Network's (JAN) cognitive/neurological team.

The Pros of Working When You Have Cancer

Distraction. "Many individuals with cancer report that work has helped to keep their minds on other things while in the middle of a very serious and frightening experience," Whetzel explains.

Support. The workplace can also provide a safe place to receive social and emotional support from colleagues.

Financial Support. Working provides a steady income to help pay for some of the incurring medical expenses.

The Cons of Working When You Have Cancer

Fatigue. "Probably some of the biggest obstacles we hear about from cancer patients who are trying to work are the fatigue and the ill-effects that treatment can cause," says Whetzel.

Treatments. "Some of the treatments themselves may limit an individual's ability to concentrate, remember, and multi-task.

Cognitive impairment. Mental fog, or chemo brain as it's sometimes called, can be a very real and often a debilitating result of treatment.

10 Ways to Dial Down Work Stress When You Have Cancer

Whetzel says it's important to remember that working while you're sick doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Here are 10 ways to navigate your workday and dial down stress:

1. Negotiate a flexible schedule so you can leave the office for doctor's appointments and treatment sessions.

2. Ask your employer to allow you to work from home on days when you aren't feeling well. If you plan ahead you can access your files remotely so you can stay connected even if you're stuck in bed.

3. Work part-time while you're feeling ill or coping with treatment side effects.

4. Divide large tasks into smaller assignments that will feel less overwhelming.

5. Communicate your situation to your co-workers so they understand that things may change from day to day.

6. Ask your employer for help with job restructuring to reallocate or redistribute marginal job functions and help reduce stress.

7. Utilize memory aids, including organizers, cue cards, tape recorders, checklists, and anything else that can help you remember important information.

8. Rely on a scooter or other mobility device if your job requires strenuous walking throughout the day and you don't feel up to the task.

9. Request changes to your work environment, such as fewer distractions, a change in air temperature or light, or a more comfortable work station to help ease your discomfort.

10. Schedule periodic breaks to clear your head and help you stay productive.

How to Ask Your Boss for Help

"Employers who have processes in place for promoting open communication and handling of accommodation requests will have the most success in assisting individuals with cancer be effective in their jobs," Whetzel says.

To learn more about how to effectively talk to your employer and request any accommodations you require, visit the JAN website, chat live with an advisor through the JAN website, or call JAN's helpline at 800-526-7234.

Melanie Whetzel reviewed this article.


Accommodation and Compliance Series: Employees with Cancer. JAN. Accessed online, Dec. 11, 2013. http://askjan.org/media/Cancer.html

Melanie Whetzel, Job Accommodation Network (JAN), U.S. Department of Labor's Office of
Disability Employment Policy. Email interview, Dec. 9, 2013. http://askjan.org/