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At work

Cancer doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have to stop working. Some people choose to take a break until they’ve recovered, whereas others may reduce their hours or work flexibly around their treatment and appointments.

This decision can be a difficult one, and ultimately it depends on your health, the type of treatment you’re having, your finances, and your occupation.1 Some people with cancer find it beneficial for their mental health to remain at work. In this case, there are steps that can be taken to adapt your work life to your treatment.

Raising the subject of cancer with your employer can be daunting. You might be afraid that you’ll be made redundant or treated unfavourably at work due to your cancer. However, it’s important to know that many countries consider cancer to be a disability and protect the rights of people with cancer, so check your country’s labour and equality laws.

Who you tell at work is entirely up to you, though it’s a good idea to speak to your supervisor about the support you might need. You may also wish to tell someone from your human resources (HR) department. Again, how much information you wish to share about your diagnosis is your decision.2

When speaking to your supervisor, choose a comfortable and private space. If you feel nervous or need extra support, you may wish to bring a friend or a union representative to your meeting. You can then inform your employer that you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, and what decision you have made regarding staying at work, taking a break during treatment, or leaving.

It’s important to be open and honest with your employers about your needs. You’ll find that most employers will be happy to accommodate your requirements to make you as comfortable as possible. 

Expect your supervisor to have some follow-up questions – though these may feel personal, your supervisor may want more information to accommodate you the best they can. If they ask anything you’re not ready to share, simply tell them that you’d prefer not to tell them at this time.

Remember, your employer should not tell anyone about your condition without your consent. Equally, they must ask your permission before requesting a medical report from your doctor.2

Whether you wish to keep your cancer diagnosis private, or feel comfortable sharing it with co-workers, the decision is entirely yours. Telling a select few co-workers, such as those you work regularly with, may be worthwhile as you begin to take time off for appointments and treatment. Co-workers you trust can also be a great source of support as you navigate working alongside your treatment.

If you do wish to tell co-workers, consider telling people one-to-one or in small groups, to make the conversation easier. During this conversation, you can give as much, or as little, information away as you prefer. Remember, if someone asks questions you consider intrusive, or gives you too much attention, you can politely remind them that you’d prefer to talk about something else, or don't wish to be treated differently.  

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask your co-workers for help and flexibility as you adapt your work commitments around your treatment schedule. 

How to feel comfortable at work

What you can do

You might find work more challenging when you have cancer or are receiving treatment. Possible side effects of treatment, such as forgetfulness or fatigue, can get in the way of meeting deadlines or keeping your concentration. There are a few things you can do to help this:3,4

  • Take short breaks during your shift to keep your energy up
  • Create lists and reminders to help remember your meetings or tasks
  • See if friends or family members can help you with chores at home – this can leave you with more energy for work
  • Make a list of your responsibilities and how other people can handle them in case you’re away from your workplace
  • Keep your supervisor up to date with your schedule, and let them know if you’re feeling overwhelmed or have any concerns 
What your employers can do

To make things easier for you, your employers can make some changes to the workplace or your job so you can keep working or return to work. These can include:4,5

  • Flexible working
  • Reduced hours
  • Giving time off (paid or un-paid) so you can attend appointments or treatment
  • Improving accessibility in your workplace
  • Allowing you to work somewhere more accessible for you, e.g. on the ground floor of the workplace, or working from home
  • Providing sick pay if you’re unable to work for an extended period. Not all workplaces offer this, so it’s best to find out from your supervisor 
What your healthcare team can do

It’s worth speaking to your healthcare team about your decision to stay in work. Your doctors can inform you about the likely side-effects of the treatment you’re receiving, and whether they think these could affect your work.

Your healthcare team could also provide ways to make your treatment fit around work. For example, your doctor may be able to schedule treatment before your days off, so you can rest without missing work.3

Remember, your employers, colleagues, and healthcare team are all there to help you if you choose to continue working after your diagnosis. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.

Click on one of the options below to learn more 

  1. NHS Inform. Work. 2020. Available at: Accessed August 2021.
  2. Macmillan. Talking to your employer. 2021. Available at: Accessed August 2021.
  3. Going to work during and after cancer. 2019. Available at: Accessed August 2021.
  4. Working during cancer treatment. Available at: Accessed August 2021.
  5. GOV.UK. Reasonable adjustments for workers with disabilities or health conditions. Available at: Accessed August 2021.