My cancer is in remission; do I have a disability?

Question

I was diagnosed with cancer a year ago. After surgery and chemotherapy treatment, my doctor recently told me that my cancer is in remission. Going forward, I need follow-up blood work and testing every few months, but I'm hopeful that I have put this behind me. Unfortunately, my manager seems to be holding it against me. He told me that the company can't afford to have someone in my position who can't devote 100% to the job and that he will have to consider replacing me if I need more time off. He complained a lot about the time I took off for treatment. And, he told me not to submit my name for promotions because he won't even consider me until he is confident that I'm healthy again. Is this legal?

Answer

What your manager is doing is not only unkind and insensitive; it may also be illegal. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects employees from disability discrimination at work. Refusing to consider you for promotion because you had cancer and threatening to fire you for necessary medical treatment are both forms of workplace discrimination.

Under the ADA, it is illegal for an employer to make job decisions based on an employee's disability: a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Cancer is almost always a disability, as it significantly restricts the proper functions of the body, including cell growth, immune system function, and so on. An employer may not consider your disability, or your history of having had a disability, when making employment decisions. So, you were likely protected by the ADA while you were receiving treatment and you are likely protected now that you are in remission.

It sounds like your manager has not yet actually limited your job opportunities because of your history of cancer, although he has said he will. This gives you an opportunity to go to your company's HR department and express your concerns. Point out that your manager has told you not to apply for promotions and has threatened to replace you if you need more time off for treatment. Explain that his statements and actions are upsetting and that you are worried your job opportunities will suffer because of your cancer diagnosis. Ask them to take action to protect you.

Once you come forward, your company should investigate the situation. This might include talking to your manager, your coworkers, and others who may have heard his comments. Then, the company should take action (such as warning or disciplining your manager) that will be effective in ending the discriminatory behavior. In the meantime, start keeping notes of everything your manager has said to you, documenting what was said, when, where, and who else was there. This will help protect you if the company doesn't act and you end up losing job opportunities as a result.

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