What can help and what you need to know about continuing in work after a cancer diagnosis...

Most people who are in work when they are diagnosed with cancer want to continue working. But working during treatment or going back to work after treatment has finished isn’t always easy. While some employers are genuinely supportive, others make it very hard indeed and may even be breaking the law… as some Live Better With community members have found.

We know that trying to combine work with cancer and cancer treatment can be a challenge, even when you have a sympathetic employer. So, we’ve put together some advice, including members’ tips, and a list of some of the best online guides and other resources that we hope will help.

Common worries about cancer and work

‘I'm meant to be fit for work but I don't feel that way and had to go back due to finances.’ Live Better With community member

If you are working, being diagnosed with cancer brings a host of questions about how you will cope - whatever type of job you have - and whether you work for an employer or you’re self-employed.

What should you tell your employer, work colleagues or clients about your diagnosis, treatment and prognosis? Will you be able to work during treatment, especially if you are having radiotherapy or chemotherapy, with frequent hospital visits?

If you’ve taken time off work for treatment, how soon can you go back to work? Are you entitled to be paid while you’re away from work? Will you be able to manage financially? Are you entitled to any benefits if you’re not working? 

And what about the side effects of treatment, how do you cope with fatigue or brain fog, for example? And could you lose your job because you have cancer and need time off?

It’s completely understandable to be worried but it’s important to know that there is help and advice available, not just for you but for your employer too. You don’t have to struggle with this alone. We wanted to answer some of the most frequently asked questions and point you in the right direction to find any other information you might need.

How will cancer and cancer treatment affect me at work?

‘Finished chemo last March and second round of radiation for mets in August. Working part time as a registered nurse. Certainly not at my pre illness energy level and definitely kind to myself in off hours. It's hard. One day at a time.’ Live Better With community member

Ask your specialist cancer nurse how your treatment will affect your work and what time off you’re likely to need. If you’re having surgery, you’ll need time to heal and recover; if you’re having chemotherapy or radiotherapy, you’ll need time off from work for appointments and time to recover from each session.

Cancer treatment, including drug treatment, can leave you feeling drained and exhausted and can have a host of other side effects. It can affect your ability to concentrate too, whatever your work involves, whether you’re an HGV driver, an accountant, a dancer, a chef, a care worker… or a doctor.

What should I tell my employer about my cancer diagnosis and treatment?

‘… my job… involves long shifts 10 to 15 hours with no breaks plus an overnight sleep in. I know work has to make adjustments but… it would cause a lot of complications… and disrupt the other staff as working split shifts would be far from ideal for them.’ Live Better with community member

Once you have a better idea of how your cancer diagnosis and treatment will affect you at work, it’s really important to talk to your employer as soon as possible and put them in the picture. This will help them plan and make any adjustments while you’re having treatment or when  you come back to work, and provide cover while you’re away, if necessary. Ask to have a private conversation somewhere quiet.

If you have a good relationship with your manager or supervisor, talk to them; otherwise arrange to speak to someone in the HR department if there is one where you work.

You can also use this opportunity to talk about what you should tell your work colleagues. Even if you’re reluctant to discuss your cancer in detail, if your colleagues know what you are going through and how treatment could affect you, it’s easier for them to be more supportive and understanding.

Taking care of yourself at work

Try to keep your energy levels topped up throughout the day: drink plenty of water and keep a supply of nutritious snacks, such as energy bars, nuts, fruit or carrot sticks close at hand.

Take mini breaks when you need them; find somewhere to sit quietly, breathe deeply, and recharge your batteries.

Go for a short walk at lunchtime or during morning or afternoon breaks; taking some exercise, however gentle, will give you more energy.

Try to get a good night’s sleep, so that you wake rested and refreshed. (See our tips on cancer and sleep here.)

If your workplace has one, liaise with the occupational health department as they will be able to offer support and make suggestions too.

A work buddy can help when you have cancer

‘…work friends are all getting a tattoo together, in a show of solidarity to all of us and how we have all come together since my diagnosis.’ Live Better with community member

When you are facing a cancer diagnosis and treatment, we think it’s a good idea to have a work buddy, a colleague whom you know, trust and find easy to talk to.  They can keep in touch and keep you up to date with what’s happening at work and can support you when you are back at work, especially if you are having a bad day.

It helps to lessen the sense of isolation – going through treatment can feel like being in a tunnel – and you won’t feel so alone when you go back. Keep your work buddy in the picture too; tell them how you’re coping with treatment and how it’s affecting you, and they can also let your employer and work colleagues posted know how you are getting on.

Build up your work hours gradually 

‘I'm back to work after … mastectomy and chemo. Only doing short hours but I'm so exhausted already and I've only done four half days. Is this normal?’ Live Better With community member

Many of our members have gone back to work on a phased basis, two to three days a week, for example, before gradually building up to full-time work, and have found that it can help. 

The one thing they all agree on is how tired they have felt and how long it takes to get back to feeling normal, even working shorter hours, so be prepared to take things slowly. If you are struggling, you may be reluctant to tell your employer, but it’s better to let them know. What’s more, your employer cannot treat you less favourably than other employees simply because you have cancer (see ‘legal rights’ below).

Several members said that they felt better able to cope at home so, if you have the type of job that can be done at home, even part of the time, ask if that would be possible. You wouldn’t have to travel to and from work so often, and we all know how exhausting and uncomfortable travelling can be, even when you’re fit and well. If you do have to travel to and from work, ask if it would be possible to stagger your hours so that you avoid the busiest travel periods.

What are my legal rights at work if I have cancer?

In the UK, it’s unlawful for employers to discriminate against employees who have cancer; in England, Scotland and Wales you are covered by the Equality Act 2010 and in Northern Ireland by the Disability Act 1995. Find out more here at Macmillan Cancer Support (and see below). If you’re one the UK’s three-quarters of a million people on a zero hours contract, the good news is that you are covered too.

All your cancer and work questions answered

If you haven’t already come across it, we recommend the Work and Cancer section of the Macmillan Cancer Support website. It’s very thorough and packed full of work- related information and advice for cancer patients, their carers and employers, and people who are self-employed, covering topics such as: 

  • How cancer can affect your work life
  • Making decisions about work
  • What impact will cancer have on my business
  • Supporting employees with cancer at work
  • Benefits and finance
  • Self-employment and cancer

You can also call the Macmillan Work Support Service and speak to one of their expert advisers on 0808 808 0000.

Several of the specialist cancer charity websites have dedicated sections on cancer and work; they include:

These organisations also offer advice, help and support:

  • ASTRiiD - a charity connecting businesses with professionals who have long term health problems but who still have many skills to offer employers (read our article on ASTRiiD here.)

  • Fit for Work - support for GPs, employers and employees to help those who are in work with health conditions or off sick.

  • Safe Workers – a comprehensive guide to work safety, including health and wellbeing. 

  • Working with Cancer – a social enterprise helping people affected by cancer return to work.

Visit the Live Better With Cancer Community Forum for information, advice, and tips and to share your own questions and suggestions on cancer and work.

By Diane Trembath