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Returning to Work After Cancer Treatment: Accommodating Chemo Brain in the Workplace

A look at accommodations for chemo brain

From the desk of Sarah Small, M.S., CRC, Consultant – Cognitive/Neurological Team


The Mayo Clinic suggests that chemo brain is a commonly used term to describe cognitive difficulties that can occur during and after receiving cancer treatment. The cause of these difficulties is unclear, but symptoms experienced can include issues with concentration, short-term memory, confusion, multitasking, learning new skills, and overall feelings of mental fog. These side effects of treatment can be extremely frustrating and at times debilitating.

At JAN, we frequently talk about ideas to assist employees in the workplace who are receiving cancer treatment. Often these conversations consist of exploring leave options and flexible scheduling to assist with doctor appointments and other medical needs. Sometimes, if the job allows, there may be an accommodation of telework implemented to allow the employee to continue working while protecting their immune system.

Thankfully, with continued research and treatment options, more individuals find themselves in remission and able to fully return to their job. Returning to work after cancer treatment can be daunting. After experiencing the physical and mental impact of a cancer diagnosis and treatment, it may be hard to think about what it will be like to resume job duties. There might also be anxiety that comes with adjusting to the old environment and reconnecting with coworkers. These factors coupled with potential chemo brain symptoms can make for a tough transition back to work.

It can be important to remember that the obligation to accommodate may not end when someone does return. Once back at work, employees may need the ability to attend follow up medical appointments and/or realize that they are having issues with cognitive function. There may be a need to explore temporary or ongoing accommodations.

For information on accommodation ideas related to cognitive function see JAN's A to Z by Limitation: Cognition.  In addition, here are some practical tips to help with navigating the return to work process after cancer treatment. 

For the employer:

  • Prior to the return to work date, it may help to check in with the employee about their return and any potential accommodation needs to help with a smooth transition.
  • Keep in mind that the employee may not know of specific needs until they are back and performing the job tasks. Make sure the employee is aware of who to go to if they do struggle or need additional support.
  • Be patient yet consistently apply performance and conduct standards. Some employees may not realize or may have difficulty acknowledging changes in cognitive function. Ignoring the concerns based on what the employee has gone through, even with good intention, might be problematic. Address issues the same as you would with any employee but be mindful that the difficulties could be related to the cancer treatment. Be open to talking about ways to help.

For the employee:

  • Don’t be afraid to communicate with your employer any concerns regarding your return to work.
  • Accommodations can be asked for at any time during the employment process, so it is okay if you do not know if accommodations will be needed prior to getting back to work. If it is unclear who you would need to speak with if you do need assistance it is okay to clarify that information with your employer.
  • Take it one day at a time and try not to be hard on yourself during the transition!

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