Understanding what your options are for managing your career during lung cancer treatment is crucial. Here are some of the most important questions to consider.

Treatment for lung cancer can vary depending on the extent of your disease. It may include radiation, surgery, or chemotherapy.

Since treatment can last for several weeks or months, you may be wondering: Will I be able to work while undergoing treatment for lung cancer? And if so, how much should I work?

The ability to work during treatment for lung cancer varies from person to person. It’s important to ask your doctor how your specific treatment could affect your career.

Having the physical and emotional strength to work during cancer treatment depends on how your body responds to treatment. Different treatments can cause various side effects, which may or may not interfere with your typical daily routine.

Here are a few questions to ask your doctor when deciding whether to continue working.

1. What side effects can I expect from treatment?

Side effects of radiation and chemotherapy can include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • headaches
  • extreme fatigue

Keep in mind, though, that everyone responds differently. One person with lung cancer might be able to work full time while going through treatment, while another person might need time away from work.

Making decisions about work

Your doctor can’t predict how you’ll feel during treatment, but they can provide insight on what to expect. Often, people with new diagnoses have to first start their treatment, and then decide whether they’re able to keep up with their job responsibilities.

2. Should I still work?

Your ability to work largely depends on how you feel. Under certain circumstances, your doctor might suggest it’s time to stop working or not to work certain jobs.

Lung cancer can cause symptoms like shortness of breath and coughing. Depending on the nature of your job, working could potentially compromise your lung health.

For example, you might work in a restaurant, bar, or another place that allows indoor smoking. Or maybe you’re exposed to chemicals on the job or work in a poorly ventilated environment. Both scenarios can exacerbate your symptoms.

Your doctor might also recommend not working if your job is fast-paced, which could trigger extreme shortness of breath. Frequent moving around and too few breaks can also cause breathing issues.

3. What is the initial timeline for treatment?

Knowing your initial timeline for treatment can help you decide whether to work. Of course, treatment plans can change depending on effectiveness.

If your initial treatment is only a few weeks or a couple of months, you might be in a financial position to take time off and focus on getting better.

If you need surgery, knowing your recovery time can also help you coordinate time off with your employer.

4. How can I stay safe at work?

Lung cancer treatments can weaken your immune system. This can make you more susceptible to viruses and bacteria.

To keep yourself safe, your doctor might recommend wearing a mask while at work, following physical distancing, washing your hands frequently, and avoiding handshakes.

A lung cancer diagnosis is personal and private. But the reality is, your treatment can affect your job performance. While you don’t have to disclose your illness to your supervisor, it may help them understand.

On the other hand, if your treatments don’t interfere with your work schedule, you might hold off speaking with your employer. But if you begin experiencing side effects such as nausea or fatigue while on the job, telling your supervisor can serve to your advantage.

It’s also beneficial to notify your supervisor if treatments will interfere with your schedule, or if you experience symptoms or side effects at work. Under these circumstances, your employer might offer extra accommodations.

Maybe you can move your desk closer to the office bathroom if you have nausea or vomiting. Or your employer might move a few assignments so you can maintain your strength.

It might be helpful to notify some of your co-workers, too. Again, it’s up to you to tell as little or as many people as you’d prefer.

When your supervisor and co-workers know about your condition, they can offer support. You may be able to adjust your schedule and not work, or if possible, work from home on days when you have treatments or are feeling sick. They might also grant you more frequent breaks.

At some point, you might need to take time off from work and focus on treatment.

If you have short- or long-term disability insurance through your employer, speak with your human resources (HR) department to see whether you qualify.

Short-term disability pays up to 70% of your income while you’re not working, typically for up to 3–6 months.

If you need more time off, you might be eligible for long-term disability through your employer. This typically pays about 40–70% of your income. Some long-term disability insurance plans provide coverage for as long as 6–20 years.

If you don’t have disability insurance through your employer, you may qualify for Social Security disability payments, which are federal disability benefits.

The Social Security Administration’s definition of disability is strict, so you may be turned down at first. You can always reapply and appeal their decision. The good news, though, is that there’s a speedy process for reviewing individuals with cancer diagnoses.

Another option is to take an unpaid leave of absence from work. If your employer has more than 50 employees, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows you to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Upon your return, you can resume your same position or a similar one.

  • Short-term disability insurance may be available through your employer. It typically pays up to 70% of your income while you’re not working for up to 3–6 months.
  • Long-term disability insurance may be available through your employer. It typically pays about 40–70% of your income. The length of time depends on the plan.
  • Social Security offers federal disability benefits for eligible people, but there’s a risk of being turned down at first. There’s a review process for individuals with cancer diagnoses.
  • The Family Medical Leave Act, if applicable, allows you to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave and resume the same or a similar position.

If you must stop working, speak with your employer’s HR department right away to discuss disability and unpaid leave options. If you’re not eligible for disability through your employer, you can apply for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).

Consider other ways to manage your finances as you prepare to stop working. Do you have unused vacation time or personal leave? If you use this time and stop working, you might still receive a paycheck for a few weeks.

Also, consider whether you can live off of your savings account. Ask your lenders and creditors about hardship provisions.

Some banks might defer your payments for a few months, or temporarily reduce your monthly payments if you’re unable to work due to sickness. This can remove some financial burden while you’re not working.

As a last resort, you can pull cash from your retirement account if you have one. Typically, you’ll pay a penalty if you withdraw money from a 401(k) or an IRA before the age of 59 and a half. But if your doctor confirms that you have a disability and can’t work for at least 1 year, you’re allowed to take money from your IRA penalty-free.

If you have a 401(k), ask your employer for a hardship withdrawal. Keep in mind you’ll pay regular income tax on these withdrawals.

A lung cancer diagnosis is unpredictable. There’s no way to know how you’ll feel after starting treatment.

You might prefer to keep your diagnosis private. In some cases, sharing it with your employer might serve to your advantage. Side effects of cancer treatment can leave you feeling drained. If your employer knows about your condition, they can offer accommodations to help during this time.