Working When You Have Leukemia

Health Writer
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Have you recently been diagnosed with leukemia? You may be wondering if you can—or should—return to work while undergoing treatment. You’re not alone; roughly half of cancer survivors are of working age. There are four types of leukemia and many treatment options, so deciding to go back to work is a complex decision. Here are a few things to consider.


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Know what to expect

Ask your physician about potential side effects from treatment for your type of leukemia. For example, fatigue is common. It can interfere in your endurance, mood, and cognitive function and affect your job performance. Chemo brain — a common side effect of chemotherapy — makes it difficult to concentrate and remember details. Your physician can recommend treatments and lifestyle changes that minimize disease symptoms and treatment side effects.


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Keep working straight through treatment or take time off?

Only you can make that call. Work may give you a sense of purpose, routine, and self-esteem and may be a welcome distraction from the stress and anxiety of living with cancer. The decision to return to work depends on what type of leukemia you have, your treatment, how healthy you are, and what type of work you do. You may take comfort in knowing that 64 percent of all cancer survivors do return to work following treatment.


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Should you tell your boss and coworkers?

There are advantages and disadvantages to telling people at work. On the plus side, it lends legitimacy to the times when you can’t participate as fully as you’d like, and gives others a chance to help and support you. On the other hand, if you have a very competitive work environment, or you suspect coworkers won’t be supportive, you may just want to share the news with a few people you trust. You will have to tell your boss if you need to request reasonable workplace accommodations.


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Be creative and explore your options

Working generally doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Ask your employer about alternative work arrangements until you feel stronger. Some jobs lend themselves to working from home, at least part of the time. Fewer hours, flexible hours, and job sharing may enable you keep working while giving you extra time to go to doctor’s appointments or rest between treatments.


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Tap into existing resources

If you have short- or long-term disability insurance, look into your coverage. Disability insurance may give you the financial coverage you need to temporarily take time off. Furthermore, most large employers have employee assistance programs (EAPs) that can provide confidential counseling for personal and work-related issues and referrals to other needed services.


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Managing side effects

Side effects of leukemia and its treatment, such as fatigue, nausea, pain, rashes, or other symptoms may be hard to manage or conceal in the workplace. It may help to talk to your employer about working flexible hours, working from home, or taking partial or whole days off on days when you’re feeling especially sick.


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Take care of yourself

Whether you return to work immediately, or take time off until you feel better, it’s important to take care of yourself. Eat a healthy diet, get a good night’s sleep, stay active, and don’t be afraid to ask others for help. Leukemia and its treatment can lower your resistance to colds and flu, so discuss with your doctor ways to protect yourself, such as wearing a face mask and avoiding handshakes.


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Do what you can to help yourself — and your employer

Prioritize tasks and focus on one thing at a time. Eliminate workspace distractions and use memory aids, such as electronic calendars, to keep track of appointments and projects. Ask coworkers for help when needed and communicate regularly with your supervisor if your needs change. Take breaks to conserve your energy. The American Cancer Society suggests scheduling chemotherapy during late afternoons or at the end of the week so you have recovery time before going back to work.


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Know your legal rights

Employers don’t have to settle for lower standards from employees with disabilities, including cancer. However, by law, they do have to make reasonable accommodations. The Federal Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act protect employees from discrimination at work due to illness. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires employers with 50 or more employees give eligible workers up to 12 weeks unpaid leave during a 12-month period.


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Be realistic — and patient

It may take time for you to feel like yourself again and be back to your pre-cancer strength and job performance. About one in five cancer survivors report cancer-related work limitations up to five years after their diagnosis.