How To Avoid Getting Fired For Having Cancer

We linked last week to a Dana-Farber Cancer Institute post about how to tell your boss you have cancer, and a reader responded with this troubling comment:

My employer was initially very supportive but when my cancer treatment was over, he fired me.
I had been working there for seven years and had received great performance reviews and bonuses. When my employer called me into his office to fire me he pulled out a calendar and pointed out when my work had suffered. He stated that since these times did not coincide with the dates of my surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, that he was justified in letting me go.
He didn’t realize (and there’s no reason he would have) how much the experience of having cancer had affected me emotionally and mentally. I had seen no reason to stay home from work throughout my treatment except for the days I felt very sick and that decision ended up back-firing on me.
When I was finished with my treatment, I wanted to return to work without delay to reassume my identity as an upbeat business woman, not a bald cancer patient.
My advice to those about to undergo cancer treatment would be to:
•take a formal medical leave of absence. Don’t think you only need to stay home on the days you feel physically ill.
•be aware that, very often, the most difficult times begin after treatment ends, just when you expect and are desperate to return to normalcy.

I checked back in with Dana-Farber for more light on this comment. Did Nancy Borstelmann, the institute’s director of patient and family support and education, second this person’s advice? What was her impression of how often this kind of thing happens?

‘Completing treatment is often met with a seemingly paradoxical increase in distress.’

Does she agree that the most difficult time is often after treatment ends? What recourse does a patient have if they’re fired like this commenter, and how often do they succeed in getting any sort of reparations?

She kindly responded:

Business practices can vary from company to company and, unfortunately, discrimination does happen. In terms of a termination process, usually an employee needs to be told that there are specific performance concerns and what needs to be done to improve, etc. Verbal and written warnings with documented action plans and time frames are common human resources practices.

The Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, is an important piece of legislation that can protects certain rights in situations where health issues require a medical leave. However, not everyone is covered by FMLA, so it is important to check with the employer about their eligibility. The human resources department should have this information.

One suggestion is to contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for direction about a specific situation, or if one believes that there are discriminatory practices occurring, to consider consulting a lawyer who deals with employment-related issues.

Completing treatment is often met with a seemingly paradoxical increase in distress. This is something that we hear often from our patients. When treatment is over, some patients feel uncomfortably alone and unsafe, disconnected from the health care team and the active treatment aimed at the cancer. With treatment over, a patient may expect, and maybe everyone else around them as well, that things should go “back to normal.” There needs to be, however, time for the person to experience both physical and emotional healing. Sometimes going back to work is part of that healing. It is also important for the person to recognize how they are really feeling and to make sure that they are getting the necessary support as they move forward.

My micro-rant: I wish that employers who fire workers recovering from cancer could just be publicly shamed. Could somebody please start a Website?

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Swim

    My job let me take a demotion but let me keep my previous positions health benifits and they pay me my weekly salary ÷40 for my new hourly rate. I also got approved for social security disability so now my Job is letting work just enough to keep my health insurance for me, wife and 2 kids, and to put $50 per week in my 401k. My 401k right now is valued at $20014.87. Yay I just hit th 20k Mark this quarter. I am 30 years old and my 401k us all I have to leave my family money wise. My job has been great and I am very lucky. For those curious I work at a Franchise, not corporate, Arbys. The corporate guys are dicks but my local franchise owners are very good people. They own 27 Arbys in the south. I was A General Manager at my time of diagnosis. Now I’m an overpaid shift leader pretty much. All I need is 12 hours per week to keep my health insuranse and 401k going. I do this with 2 6 hour days.

  • Misty Conner

    I’m 28 years old and the doctors found a tumor in my utres last year. I still have now my job knows how sick I am they have alot of doctor notes. Well recently my hours started to go away and I feel like my job keeps writing me up for attendance or any other time they think I already filed for disability but just got my denied letter. I am so restrictions at work u would think it would be so much easier to just go to work for 4 hrs . But no there’s always a write up. Beyond stressed enough I don’t need it from work

  • Tammy Bradford

    I do not know if anyone has started a website about this, but I was just searching for answers as to why I was having issues. I saw a neurologist and a tumor marker showed up so I had to start testing for Multiple Myeloma. I was having to miss work, but I my boss was great (I thought) and although I was hesitant due to past issues, I confided I would just have a period of testing then things would be fine I was sure of it. I had before then gotten rave reviews from supervisors. I was quickly brought through the process of being written up. I had even been told I was doing better. I had changed medication to make sure it was not bothering my performance. I was soon fired, all of this before testing could even be completed. The head of HR made a point of complaining about how the company had to start paying for preventive screenings this year, during the whole meeting about the new benefits she acted as if our care was coming out of her check. I hope she never gets cancer.

  • Dontknowwhattodo

    I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer earlier this year and have tried to work throughout my treatments. Although, I am trying, I just cannot do it anymore and my boss is encouraging me to take Short Term Disability. If I am honest with myself I cannot perform at the level I used to.They have been good to me so far and are continually telling me that my job is secure. I feel like I have lost a battle and let them and myself down. Not sure if I should try and hang on since I do not have many months left. Or are they going to hold allcthis time off against me

  • Oreo0909

    Please start a website. My employer of 13 years did the same to me. The company employs nearly 7000 employees and refused my request for accommodation (part-time) for 1-2 months, then back to full-time as before. The company is supposedly in the top 100 places to work and boasts about it’s reputation to help the homeless. They said allowing me to return to work would cause them undue hardship. And by the way, this company is funded through tax payer dollars!

  • lainey

    I was diagnosed with breast cancer 2 months ago. I had a bilateral mastectomy . At the time
    I left I was at an executive level and on salary. The week before I called my employer and announced I was coming back, at the same time I was told my office was being cleaned out and I was moved downstairs. There was another girl taking my position. I was being taken off salary and moved to hourly. I started back a week later with a totally different job title and my pay was cut by 4k a year. The only limitation I had was i could not lift over 10 pounds. This was fine because It was not in my job description anyway. The girl that got promoted got a raise. This is company I have been with for 4 years. I went out of my way to take on many different tasks. This was also a company that is owned by family members. I am pressing charges needless to say. This was so upsetting for me..Dealing with cancer on top of this. I do not get people. I did not choose cancer it chose me. I was willing and able to come back. I did end up leaving. The humiliation I felt was overwhelming.

  • Elizabeth

    I was diagnosed with breast cancer last month. I am 3 years from being able to draw my retirement. Yesterday, I received a letter from the school superintendent saying my job was being eliminated this coming May. I’ve done some checking. They are not eliminating it. They are combining it with another position that will be outside my area of certification, thus making me ineligible for my own job. This was my 16th year with this district!

  • Gina-kennedy

    I had  brain surgery in July, followed by chemo and radiation, then lung surgery in December. I was on short term disability for 6 months and on long term disability for 1 month, still not back at work, almost ready, but now my employer of 33 years is threatening to terminate my employment  if i cannot return to full time duties in less than 2 weeks.  There were never any performance issues-reviews always glowing.  Very sad – and its a higher educational institution.

    • Carey Goldberg

      I think I might use a term stronger than “sad” for this!! If you’d like us to write about it, please contact us by clicking on “Get in touch.” Sometimes headlines help…

    • Jeichel

      I have to ask. Doesn’t the American with Disabilities Act help in these matters?

  • Anonymous

    I wish you could tell me who these employers are. It’s disgusting to thing that any of my $$ are ending up in their pockets.

    • AdamBrooks Colter

      Here is a story about a woman with stage 4 cancer who was fired without cause from Clay Nissan of Norwood, MA. You can read all about her and how she was fired. The site now has over 2000 supporters. Please help to support Jill Colter… Visit

  • Kathi Apostolidis

    Put shame on them is one measure but it will not return back a job lost or a demotion or other discrimination against cancer patients. Personally, I had chosen not to disclose the nature of my disease. In Greece, medical leave does not require to state the nature of the disease (protected private data..)…but from friends I heard that demotion was frequent when the disease was identified. By law you can’t be fired when on sick leave and not directly afterwards because it can be construed that the disease was the cause….In Europe, there are some provisions for the employment when sick, but still much needs to be done for cancer patients returning to work or for metastatic patients who might take long rounds of medical leave….

  • Julia

    My boss demoted me and made me the receptionist on the day I came back from being out for 2 months recovering from my double mastectomy. How’s that for a welcome back?

    • mplo

      What your boss did to you goes well beyond beyond disgraceful!  Sorry for what happened to you, Julia.  You shouldn’t have to be penalized like that for something like that, which was no fault of your own.  Who the hell died and made HIM the boss