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Protections For People With Cancer: Top 5 Things To Know About Your Rights As a Cancer Patient Under the Americans with Disabilities Act

By Kavontae Smalls,


Know Your Rights as a Cancer Patient

  • People battling cancer or a chronic disease can quickly see their life upended after learning of their diagnosis. Among the wide range of impacts include how the cancer will impact your ability to work.
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provide protections for cancer patients willing and able to work while embarking on their cancer journeys.
  • Federal and state laws require employers to make reasonable accommodations to assist employees with cancer. The accommodations outlined by the ADA may include extra paid time off work, reduced work hours during treatment, and offering remote work.
  • Some cancer patients can continue to work during cancer treatment, while others may need to take some time away. Doctors recommend returning to work, if possible, as it helps cancer patients regain a sense of normalcy.
If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer or know a loved one that is diagnosed, you are well aware that a diagnosis can upend your life in a variety of ways. Aside from managing your emotions which can be fluid for a period of time as you cope, you are also dealing with lingering symptoms related to the cancer or the side effects of treatment. A diagnosis can also impact your ability to work. Luckily, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides some useful protections for resilient cancer patients while on the job. SurvivorNet experts recommend working while on your cancer journey because it creates a sense of normalcy. Although this is a decision you should make with your doctor because some cancer treatments have side effects that make working very difficult. For those patients able to work, it's important to note working while battling cancer may be different from what you are used to. You should also know you have rights as employees diagnosed with cancer. Here are five things to keep in mind.

The Rehabilitation Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act offers protection for people battling cancer or who have a history of cancer. The federal law prohibits discrimination against qualified people with disabilities - including people diagnosed with cancer or who had cancer that is in remission. Others may also benefit from the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), a law that allows many people with serious illnesses to take unpaid leave to get medical care or manage their symptoms.

Employers Must Make Reasonable Accommodations

In some situations, employers must accommodate a qualified applicant or employee with a disability unless the employer can show it would be an undue hardship to do so. This could mean making changes to work schedules, equipment usage, or policies. An example of a reasonable accommodation includes leaving for doctor’s appointments or needing extra breaks to manage fatigue or take medication. On the other hand, employers are not expected to provide accommodations that cause “undue hardships” or “significant difficulty or expense,” according to the
U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission . We'll discuss this in more detail later. Laurie Ostacher , a behavioral health clinician, recommends cancer patients talk with their employer about accommodations they may need upon returning to work. WATCH: Working during cancer. “Patients need to let their employer know [they’re] going to need some flexibility around that. Because there are going to be days when you’re not as energetic or feeling as well as other days,” Ostacher
explained . It’s important to know, an employer is allowed under the law to ask for medical documentation to verify the accommodation. However, the employer is prohibited from sharing your medical information.

When Employers Can Deny an Accommodation Request

While employers often grant accommodations for cancer patients, they do not always have to make an accommodation if they can establish “undue hardship.” The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says an undue hardship means, “providing the reasonable accommodation will result in significant difficulty or expense.” The employer also does not have to accept poor performance that does not meet its standards regarding accommodation requests.

Cancer Patients Have Protections Even Before They’re Hired

The ADA says employers cannot ask a potential job applicant about a medical condition and this includes if you have cancer or has a history of cancer. This also includes questions related to cancer-treating medicines you may be taking or procedures you have undergone. Similarly, the ADA does not require job applicants to willingly share whether they either currently have cancer or have a history of cancer. If you’ve been offered a job, your employer cannot withdraw the job offer if it learns you have or has a history of cancer. An employer may ask disability-related questions or require a medical exam if an employee’s performance suffers, and it’s reasonably believed to be related to a medical condition.

Protections for Extended Time from Work

The Federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows eligible people to take job-protected unpaid leave if they have cancer or care for a family member battling cancer. The leave of absence may last for 12 weeks of unpaid leave, continued group health insurance coverage, and protections against retaliation. Some of the reasons for extended leave include if you or someone within your care such as a spouse, child, or parent are diagnosed with a serious health condition. Your human resources department should be able to share with you your options
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