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Diane Cameron ​Photo by David Pascone​

AFTER YOU’VE​​​ HAD TIME TO PROCESS ​a loved one’s cancer diagnosis, you may wonder how your new role as a caregiver will affect your job and livelihood. Will you be able to get time off from work to take your loved one to medical appointments? If so, how much time will you need?

Before requesting medical leave from work, take a step back to assess the situation, says Leah Eskenazi, a social worker and the operations director at Family Caregiver Alliance, a national organization for caregivers based in San Francisco. Eskenazi stresses that caregivers and patients should get as much information as possible about the patient’s diagnosis, treatment and prognosis to understand how work schedules are likely to be impacted.

The good news is that chemotherapy and radiation treatment cycles usually have predictable timetables and include periods of rest, which can allow patients and caregivers to continue working with minor adjustments to their schedules. However, other types of treatments might mean more significant work adjustments.

Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), companies with 50 or more employees must offer up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off per year to eligible employees to take care of a member of the immediate family, such as a parent, spouse or child, who has a serious health condition. In addition, employers must continue to provide the same level of health insurance benefits to the employee during medical leave and offer the same position or a similar role once the person’s leave is over. Although FMLA does not require employers to pay employees for their time off, six states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws for family leave programs that pay a portion of a person’s wages for various lengths of time. Because state and local laws vary, Eskenazi recommends investigating what’s available in your area. Also, check on programs offered by your employer. For example, some companies allow employees to donate sick time to colleagues in need.

Once you are ready to talk with your employer about taking time off, set up some time to meet with the person who oversees staffing at your company, such as a human resources professional. It will help if you can say how you anticipate your work schedule might change. You might want to take medical leave intermittently—for example, four hours a week to take your spouse or parent to chemotherapy—or you might need to take several days or weeks off all at once for more extensive care. Inform your employer if you will need to step back from some of your responsibilities, such as travel, but be sure to stress how you can still contribute to the organization. Your employer will likely need a letter from the cancer patient’s physician to verify that your loved one has a serious health condition.

Since most people have health insurance through their employers, quitting work may be risky. If you are considering early retirement or quitting your job, check with a financial adviser first. Think about how your lack of employment will affect health insurance for you and your loved ones. Keep in mind that having a source of income to cover expenses can provide peace of mind during treatment. Working can also help you maintain your sense of identity beyond caregiving, especially if caring for your loved one extends over a long period of time. 

Diane Cameron is a writer who teaches courses about caregiving through Community Caregivers in Albany, New York. She has cared for several family members during their illnesses, including her husband, who was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2008.​