Joanna Morales, Cancer rights attorney and CEO of Triage Cancer in Chicago​. Photo courtesy of Joanna Morales.

Since starting cancer treatment, I have found spending a full day at work more difficult. How should I ask my employer about making accommodations?

JOANNA MORALES: You should talk to your supervisor or a human resources (HR) representative, whichever you feel more comfortable with. Check if your workplace has a specific process in place.

Before talking with your employer, make a list of accommodations that would be useful to you. This way, if you ask to telecommute, for instance, and your employer says that’s not an option, you will have an alternative ready, such as an adjusted work schedule. The whole idea is that this process helps both employers and employees to get the job done and continue to work. If you put yourself in the shoes of your employer and show that you are being proactive in finding solutions, then your employer is more likely to say, “Yes, let’s try and see if that works.”

It’s important to understand your rights before beginning the conversation and to come prepared. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a disability is defined as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities” or “a history or record of such an impairment.” If you are eligible for protection under the ADA or a state fair employment law, then your employer must provide you with a reasonable accommodation.

Once you have requested an accommodation, you and your employer should engage in a negotiation about what’s possible. While no specific timeline is required, you should ask for accommodation as soon as you realize you need one. If you are struggling through treatment side effects and your job performance suffers, employers can make decisions based on poor performance if they don’t have more information.

An accommodation can be practically anything that helps you stay at your job, return to your job, or, potentially, take time off. Think as creatively as you can about what could be useful to you. Start from the idea that everything is possible and eliminate options from there. Many health care professionals assume that there’s no way for a patient to work during treatment. But some people have to keep working because they are the only income provider at home. Other people love their work. It’s a source of joy and support, and it’s important for them to keep working. The ADA can be a useful tool to help people balance work and a cancer diagnosis.

Working Through Cancer // Triage Cancer has resources to navigate the practical and legal issues of working after a cancer diagnosis.

Aimee Swartz is a writer based in Washington, D.C.