Managing Lung Cancer at Work

by Elizabeth Millard Health Writer

When you’re diagnosed with lung cancer, so many questions come up about treatment, additional tests, possible metastasis, symptoms and side effects, and long-term prognosis. But another question that usually crops up in the midst of the medical factors is: How will this affect my work?

Doctor explaining what to expect from treatment.

Think Ahead

“Knowing what to expect can help you plan better when it comes to managing your work life,” says Sean Fischer, M.D., medical oncologist and hematologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. He told HealthCentral by phone that there are some common issues to keep in mind as you balance treatment with working.

Boss talking to employee


The question to answer first is whether you plan on telling your employer or not. You’re not obligated to do so, and Dr. Fischer says some of his patients don’t. But keep in mind that some of your treatment’s potential side effects—such as rashes, hair loss, nausea, and weight loss—may make the conversation necessary at some point.

Clock, calendar, planner, and smartphone still life


Your oncologist and care team will come up with a treatment plan that should give you a good idea of what’s going to happen, and it may include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Talk with your doctor about what to expect after each step, and what the recovery process is like, so you can plan work more effectively.

Lung cancer treatments can hit some harder than others.

Initial Treatment

People respond to treatments in different ways, says Dr. Fischer. Some might have intense side effects from chemo, for example, while others have mild issues. He notes that most of the time, you’ll know how you respond during the second week of chemo treatment. That may be when you get a better idea of how your treatment will balance out with your work.

Woman's hand marking down in day planner

Vacation Time Usage

Because the most symptoms tend to manifest during the second week of chemo, many of Dr. Fischer’s patients choose to take time off work then, to have more rest and recovery time. Using vacation time, or even short-term disability, may be a good option during the initial part of your treatment, he says. That gives you less stress when recovering from surgery or getting adjusted to chemo or radiation effects.

working from home

Managing Symptoms and Side Effects

With lung cancer, symptoms might include shortness of breath, cough, frequent respiratory infections, pain in the chest or ribs, fatigue, and weakness. During treatment, you may still have some of these symptoms, with additional effects like hair loss, rashes, and weight loss. It may help to talk to your employer about how to manage these issues in a way that helps you continue your work. For example, you may choose to work from home when dealing with particularly “bad” days.

Active work office.

Gauging Emotional Reactions

Some people find work to be a good counterbalance to lung cancer treatment, says Dr. Fischer. After all, treatment can be unpredictable when it comes to side effects, possible metastasis, and long-range outcomes. By contrast, work can feel like a steady, predictable set of tasks, which help bring a much-needed feeling of control. He advises that you keep “checking in” with how work is making you feel, to ensure that it’s still beneficial and not an additional stressor.

Immune Health

During lung cancer treatment, your immune system may become compromised, which can leave you more susceptible to viruses and bacteria. That’s why it’s important to speak with your oncologist about ways to protect yourself at work, especially during cold and flu season. For example, you may need to wear a mask when in an office and decline handshakes to reduce your exposure.

Socialising with coworkers.

Letting Coworkers Know

How open you want to be with your diagnosis and treatment is up to you, but there are benefits to sharing the information—even at a basic level, like letting people know treatment is happening, without going into detail. That way, it’s easier to request that coworkers who are fighting a cold maintain a distance from you, for instance. Also, cluing them in could be useful if you need to delegate some work or downshift your responsibilities.

Businessman and Male lawyer or judge consult having team meeting with client

Rights and Policies

If you work for a company with over 50 employees, it must follow the Family and Medical Leave Act, which mandates that you have 12 weeks unpaid time off, and that you come back to your position or one that’s similar in terms of responsibility. It’s also helpful to know an employer’s policies regarding medical leave and short-term disability. Talk to HR about these policies and what documentation is required, in the case that you may need to take more time off than you expected.

Young woman looking up big flight of stairs

Be Realistic

Optimism is a beautiful thing, and it’s very possible that you can balance treatment and work duties—maybe even with minimal disruption. But that’s not always the case, and it’s helpful to be realistic, advises Dr. Fischer. “Remember that when you have lung cancer, this is a major event, and many aspects of your life may shift,” he says. “Being flexible about that, and managing your expectations can go a long way during your recovery.”

Elizabeth Millard
Meet Our Writer
Elizabeth Millard

Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition. Her articles have appeared in SELF, Men’s Health, CNN, MyFitnessPal, and WebMD, and she has worked on patient education materials for Mayo Clinic and UnitedHealth Group. She’s also a registered yoga teacher and organic farmer.