Cancer and the workplace

Ysabel's story

Ysabel Viau leads a full life. She’s a successful entrepreneur and devoted mom to two Siberian huskies. However, she’s also encountered life-altering challenges, including two cancer diagnoses, and faced them head-on with unwavering determination.

Ysabel’s story began in April 2019, when she was first diagnosed with colon cancer. After the initial shock, Ysabel underwent surgery and 8 cycles of chemotherapy. The treatments seemed successful. Ysabel embraced life again with remarkable resilience and energy, changing her eating habits, staying active and strengthening her mind with yoga and meditation.

However, in June 2020, a follow-up exam revealed a tumour in Ysabel’s lung. She had 3 more cycles of chemotherapy and surgery to remove the tumour, but cancer cells remained in the surrounding area. Determined to completely remove the disease, Ysabel endured 7 more rounds of chemotherapy and 33 radiation treatments in the summer of 2021.

Ysabel’s cancer treatments took place during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic – a time that threatened both her health and business. However, illness wasn’t the main source of Ysabel’s anxiety. Her faith in research, science and her medical team remained unwavering. It was her clients’ and partners’ reactions to her cancer that worried her the most.

As a woman in business, I’ve broken many glass ceilings. But after more than 30 years in the game, I found myself facing the thickest glass ceiling of all: illness-related discrimination […] Cancer may not discriminate by race, by age, or by sex, but the fact remains that the subject is still considered taboo in the workplace.

At first, Ysabel kept her situation quiet. But two years later, she decided to share her story publicly to shatter the taboos surrounding cancer in the workplace. Ysabel made it her mission to make a difference and started working at the Canadian Cancer Society.

“This cause is very close to my heart,” she said. “There’s so much to be done, which is why I decided to invest my time and energy to help.”

Ysabel Viau smiling and holding her dog
Ysabel Viau

Cancer and work

A cancer diagnosis will come with many life changes and may include adjustments to your work life. This can include taking time away from work, returning to work after treatment or navigating your privacy and relationships with your colleagues after being diagnosed.

Although discrimination is against the law, many people like Ysabel may unfortunately experience illness-related discrimination in the workplace. By law, employers must make reasonable changes to help you perform your job before or after treatment. This can include changes to work hours or duties. If you’re qualified for the job, employers cannot treat you differently than other workers because of a history of illness.

If you can’t return to work, it’s important to know where to find the support and advice you need. Learn about financial assistance programs and government benefits that may be available to you. If you have a disability that prevents you from working on a regular basis, you may qualify for Canada Pension Plan (CPP) disability benefits. You can discuss these options with social workers.

See our workplace resource to learn more about managing work-related changes you may encounter because of a cancer diagnosis.

Support in the workplace

There are many ways to help a co-worker with cancer if your colleague shares their diagnosis with you. It’s important to offer support in a way that they are most comfortable with. Make sure that you respect their privacy and confidentiality, and if they are comfortable, encourage open lines of communication.

Deciding how to talk about cancer at work is a complex experience, but you are not alone. Learn more about discussing cancer at work and dealing with these changes.