Navigating Breast Cancer: Employee Rights & Workplace Protections Explained

A diagnosis of breast cancer can be a life-altering event, not only for your health but also for your career. Understanding your legal rights and protections in the workplace is crucial to ensure a smooth return to work after cancer treatment. Earlier this month, I turned in my FMLA paperwork to HR and began a short-term disability claim with my employer sponsored insurance plan. I had breast cancer surgery last week and planned ahead for my absence and any reduction in work hours that my breast cancer team deems necessary. In this blog post, we will delve deeper into the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and other employment rights for people with cancer. We will also discuss resources like the American Cancer Society and the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) that can provide valuable information and support during this challenging time.


  1. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) The FMLA is a federal law that allows eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year for specific family and medical reasons, including breast cancer treatment and recovery. This important legislation enables people with cancer to prioritize their health without fear of losing their jobs. In addition to federal FMLA protections, many states have their own medical leave laws, which may provide additional benefits and rights.

  2. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 The ADA and the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 are federal laws that prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities, including those who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. The ADA requires employers with 15 or more employees to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities, such as flexible work schedules, telecommuting options, or temporary reassignment. These accommodations can help make the return to work after cancer treatment more manageable for cancer survivors.

  3. State-Specific Leave Laws and Protections State laws may offer additional workplace protections and benefits for people with cancer. Some states mandate paid medical leave or provide more extended job-protected leave than the federal FMLA. Research the specific laws and regulations in your state to ensure you know your rights and can take advantage of all available resources.

  4. Employer Responsibilities and the Human Resources Department Employers have a legal obligation to uphold the rights of people with cancer in the workplace. This includes providing reasonable accommodations under the ADA, granting time off to care for oneself or a loved one under the FMLA, and adhering to any applicable state laws. The human resources department within your organization can be a valuable resource in understanding your employment rights and navigating the return to work after cancer treatment. Note that you must provide documentation from your diagnosis and treatment for cancer, but your employer is not entitled to your medical history or records.

  5. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) and Discrimination in the Workplace The EEOC is a federal agency responsible for enforcing employment discrimination laws, including the ADA and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This agency can provide information and support if you believe your rights have been violated. Discrimination based on genetic information, including cancer history, is also prohibited under the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). Breast cancer patients have the right to non-disclosure of their genetic testing to their employer and cannot be subject to genetic discrimination. 

  6. Employment Protections for Job Seekers and Cancer Survivors. If you are a cancer survivor looking for a new job, you have rights under the ADA and other applicable laws. Employers cannot discriminate against job applicants based on their cancer history or treatment. Employment agencies, labor organizations, and employment practices are also subject to these laws.

  7. Filing a Complaint and Seeking Legal Assistance If you believe your employment rights have been violated, you can file a complaint with the EEOC or your state’s equivalent agency. You may also consider contacting an equal employment opportunity counselor or an experienced employment attorney for guidance.

  8. Additional Resources and Support Organizations like the American Cancer Society and the U.S. Department of Labor can provide valuable information and support for people with cancer navigating their rights in the workplace. They offer resources on understanding the impact of a breast cancer diagnosis on your ability to work, your employment rights, and strategies for returning to work after treatment. Utilizing these resources can help you better understand your rights and advocate for yourself in the workplace.

    A breast cancer diagnosis can be a difficult and challenging experience. However, knowing your rights and understanding workplace laws and protections can help you maintain your career and ensure you receive the support you need during this time. Stay informed about your rights under the ADA, FMLA, and state-specific laws, and don’t hesitate to consult your human resources department, the EEOC, or legal counsel if you need assistance. Remember, you are not alone, and there are numerous resources available to help you navigate this journey.