Cancer and Workplace Discrimination: 4 Ways to Get Ahead of It

May 10, 2021
Cancer and Workplace Discrimination: 4 Ways to Get Ahead of It

Written by Sahas Mehra

Reviewed for Medical Accuracy by Jake Prigoff

As a 23-year-old walking into an office for my first-ever interview, I felt fairly confident I could bag the job—that is, until the manager asked me why there was a gap year prior to my final year in high school, as well as three entire years of graduation completed via distance learning.

I explained that I was a leukemia survivor who had undergone extensive treatment and had been in remission for the last six years. From there, the discussion quickly morphed into a detailed inquiry about my disease and an assessment of my current fitness, rather than an explanation of the nature of the job and its requirements. 

I left the office not feeling as confident as I had when I entered. As I expected, the manager never called me back. 

I wish I could say that was my only experience with workplace discrimination because of my cancer. But a few months into my first job, I had a bout of pneumonia and was forced to take two weeks of (unpaid) leave. When I returned, management informed me that they’re letting me go, as my disease “was not good for business.” My treating oncologist shared a written note stating that I had no health concerns, and that the pneumonia was in no way linked to the cancer. Nonetheless, the floor manager rudely dismissed my plea, and I was fired. 

I left the office that day with a clenched fist and a lump in my throat. And I know that I’m not the only one who has felt this way.

OneVillage interviewed Dr. Maureen Parkinson, an oncology vocational rehabilitation counselor, who helped answer some common questions that nearly every cancer patient has asked themselves at work. Here are four things to keep in mind about workplace discrimination to get ahead of it.

1. Set boundaries when coworkers ask personal questions that cross the line.

People may ask well-meaning questions out of concern that can be extremely personal in nature and uncomfortable to answer.

“Deciding to tell people at work that you had cancer is an individual decision,” explained Parkinson. “From the start, know that you do not have to disclose your medical condition. … For example, when you return to work after treatment, you may choose to say that you had a health issue to attend to.”

Disclosing your condition can have certain benefits, such as receiving emotional support from your colleagues, avoiding misunderstandings (which have the potential to lead to fast-spreading rumors), and getting the accommodations you need. Unfortunately, it could also lead to discrimination via being treated unfairly or facing more scrutiny than other employees. You could also be at the receiving end of unsolicited and unwanted advice on how to get better.

“Even the question ‘How are you?’ can be rather loaded, and it may be upsetting or even feel like an invasion of one’s privacy,” Parkinson said. “In many cases, colleagues may be wanting to connect and show that they care, but they may be asking questions that are uncomfortable to you.”

If you start feeling uncomfortable, Parkinson suggests responding “thank you for asking”—acknowledging their support—and then adding something along the lines of “Do you mind if we don’t talk about this? I would rather put this behind me.”

“This is a polite way of saying that you don’t want to answer the question, but simultaneously, you are acknowledging their reaching out to support you,” she explained. 

Usually, this is enough to stop this line of questioning, but if the person you’re talking to continues, Parkinson suggests the “broken record” assertiveness technique: “Say ‘I would rather not talk about this,’ and keep repeating this if they keep asking.”

2. Keep records of harassment.

“If you are constantly getting harassed by your colleague over your cancer diagnosis, one option is to tell them that you find these comments or opinions intrusive, unsupportive [and/or] unpleasant, and tell them to please stop making such unwanted comments,” Parkinson said. 

If they continue to make comments, start a written record of the behavior, including when the interactions occurred, what was said, and who was there. Then, “report them to your manager,” Parkinson advised. “You can do this, as your [employer has] a role to ensure a harassment-free work environment.”

3. Communicate with your supervisor assertively.

In the workplace, people with cancer may be left out of important discussions and meetings due to the assumption that they cannot work at their utmost capacity. It’s important to communicate with your employer if you are feeling left out.

“A person [with cancer] should be assertive and communicate their desire to be in meetings,” said Parkinson. “They should also discuss concerns about capacity, maybe by providing reassurance to their employer that they can handle tasks.”

It’s important to create healthy boundaries. Don’t be vague or inconsistent while communicating your limits at work, as those limits could be ignored or tested. Time to explore your comfort level, and think about your own limits. Review your current job responsibilities and set realistic expectations for yourself.

But what if you were up for a promotion before your diagnosis, and you suspect you’re no longer being considered due to your illness? While this can be a tricky scenario to negotiate, Parkinson highlights that the answer is, once again, assertiveness.

“The survivor should communicate their decision to be considered for promotion and [restate] their desire ... to do the job,” she explained. “[H]aving early and regular communication about addressing concerns is better than filing a complaint after the fact, because the cancer survivor wants to prevent discrimination from starting in the first place. ...Prevention is, ultimately, better than a reaction.”

If this communication goes unheeded, you can consult your company’s human resources department, “because their role is to prevent the employer from discriminating and leaving the company open to be sued,” said Parkinson, but warning that “employees should note that if they go the legal route and plan to stay in this job, this might negatively impact their relationship with the manager in the future, which can conversely impact the quality of their work life.”

4. Decide how much you want to disclose and when.

HR could potentially reject prospective employees for consideration during interviews when they mention their cancer history. Similarly, some survivors may also choose to hide their cancer histories at the workplace due to a risk of being fired from their jobs.

Should you mention your cancer when applying for a job? It’s essential to highlight that you are not obligated to share your diagnosis or cancer history to a potential employer, and it’s a personal choice. In fact, it’s usually best to avoid mentioning their cancer history in their cover letter or resume.

“People may feel that they should make disclosures at this stage so as not to surprise the interviewer,”  said Meghan Fitz-James, a vocational rehabilitation consultant working with the Cancer and Work group who is a cancer survivor herself. “The disadvantage with disclosing at this phase is that if the employer holds any negative perceptions about your disability, it may screen you from demonstrating your strengths at an interview."

If your appearance has changed due to cancer, know that the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and state laws forbid an interviewer from asking about a disability. However, a potential employer is entitled to ask questions whether a person can perform essential functions of a job. And just because an employer isn’t supposed to ask, it doesn’t mean that they won’t.

“A disability could be disclosed after a job offer or after the employee faces a ton of difficulty at work,” Fitz-James said. “However, disclosure at such a late stage may make the employer feel tricked or misled, and there could be a lot of stress and worry about how the employer will react to the information." 

That’s why Fitz-James says that the best time to share your cancer history, if you so decide, is “either during an interview request, or the interview itself.” She recommends that people should speak about it directly so the employer can understand the implications of having the disability for job duties.

“Accommodations that are needed must be made clear, as without this knowledge the employer cannot fulfill their duty to make accommodations to the best of their ability or without undue hardship,” she explained.

Returning to the workforce after cancer can seem difficult, but it is manageable. Remember above all that discrimination is unacceptable, and you don’t have to tolerate it. 

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