I’m unable to balance my full-time job and caring for my loved one with cancer. What options do I have if I need to take some time away from work?

Rebecca Nellis, executive director of Cancer and Careers in New York City

REBECCA NELLIS: First, I recommend having a conversation with your loved one, and perhaps their medical team, to be sure you have a clear idea of what to expect. How often are treatments and how long do they last? What are potential side effects? What will be needed at home? With this information as a guide, you can think through what might need to change in your professional life to support your loved one during treatment. You know your work schedule and responsibilities best, so try to put in perspective what it would look like to divvy up your time and energy between work and the caregiving responsibilities before you.

You can discuss your options for taking time off with your supervisor or a member of your company’s human resources department. Before you meet, look through your company’s employee handbook to get a sense of the policies or programs that are in place. Find out if you have access to caregiving time off. If so, is that through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which requires companies with 50 or more employees to provide job- and insurance-protected unpaid leave to eligible employees; a company policy; or both? Many people don’t realize FMLA can apply to caregivers as well as patients. Will your time off be paid or unpaid? How might it affect your health insurance and that of your loved one, particularly if they are a dependent on your insurance coverage?


Write down a list of questions you can bring with you to the meeting with your supervisor or human resources. Come prepared with an idea of what your schedule may look like if you’re hoping to cut back on hours or distribute them differently, or when you might return if you are requesting to take a sustained period of time off. By preparing yourself well, your employer may be more agreeable to what you’re suggesting.

As you formulate your request, be sure to consider what will support you and your loved one best. Some people find they thrive on the routine, the sense of purpose and the distraction of a job, while others continue working part time primarily because they need the paycheck or to maintain their health insurance. There is no one reason people choose to continue working while acting as a caregiver, and it all comes down to what you need, what your loved one needs and what your employer says is possible.


It’s important to remember companies want to keep good employees and the only definite “no” is to a question not asked. Just because an employer isn’t required to do something doesn’t mean they won’t. Also consider alternatives that could be beneficial. If you can’t stop working completely, maybe you can negotiate reduced hours or working remotely on days when you’ll need to drive to medical appointments. Think through your specific role and job responsibilities and the types of modifications that can be made to meet your employer’s needs and allow you the time and space to fulfill your caregiving responsibilities.

CAREGIVING AND YOUR CAREER // Cancer and Careers provides advice on how to balance work and caregiving. // The Family Caregiver Alliance explains the Family and Medical Leave Act and how the law applies when you’re caring for a spouse, child or parent.