Wednesday 1 January, 2014

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On this page:  Should I tell my employer I have cancer?What should I tell my employer?Should I tell my colleagues?What are my rights regarding privacy and disclosure?What support can my employer offer me?Am I entitled to compensation if my cancer is work-related? | Kristin's story

A cancer diagnosis has a significant impact on many aspects of a person’s life. When you are diagnosed, you will have to make several decisions, such as what treatment to have and if you want to be treated publicly or privately.

You’ll also have to consider practical matters, such as how cancer will affect your working life and finances.

This information is a practical resource for employees and self-employed people with cancer, and working carers. It contains information about how cancer can affect your ability to work, tips about working during treatment and recovery, and information about your rights and entitlements. There are also suggestions for people trying to balance employment and caring duties.

The way that cancer affects your work and finances will depend on your individual circumstances. Every person’s situation is different – you may work on a casual, part-time or full-time basis. Others work at home or are self-employed.

Whatever the case, we hope this information helps you to find a working arrangement that suits your own situation.

If you’re reading this information for someone who doesn’t understand English, let them know that a Cancer Council nurse can arrange telephone support in different languages.

Will I be able to work?

Most employed people who are diagnosed with cancer wonder how it will affect their ability to work. Whether or not you are able to work during treatment will depend on:

  • the type and stage of the cancer
  • the type of treatment you have and its side effects
  • the kind of work you do.

In many cases, cancer will impact an employee’s work life. For example, you will probably have treatment appointments, some of which may be scheduled during working hours.

Deciding whether to continue working will depend on how you feel during treatment. Ask your medical team what you might expect depending on the treatment you are having. See the coping with side effects section for more information on the side effects you may experience.

Your decision will also depend on the support and flexibility of your employer. Most people who want to continue working during treatment are able to do so in some capacity. Some people manage by adjusting their work hours for a while – they may miss a couple of days here and there or work part time. Others choose to take a break or retire.

Each person’s situation is different – not everyone with the same type of cancer will make the same decision about work. It’s best to do what feels right for you.

Should I tell my employer I have cancer?

Telling your employer that you have cancer is a personal decision. While there is no law that requires you to share the diagnosis with your employer, you do have some obligations. You should tell your employer if the cancer or treatment will affect your ability to do the essential requirements of your job or if your illness could reasonably cause a health and safety risk for yourself or other people.

Being open with your employer enables you to discuss what adjustments could be made to your work. You might be able to access some benefits, such as additional leave, and your employer may be more understanding when it comes to flexible working arrangements. Other reasons to consider for disclosing your illness:

  • if your employer does not know about your diagnosis and your work is affected, it may be seen as poor work performance
  • you can work with your employer to deal with any misunderstandings
  • keeping it a secret causes unnecessary stress, and you may waste energy trying to cover it up.

If you are unsure of how your employer will react, it’s good to know your rights and your employer’s responsibilities. If you feel nervous about speaking with your manager or colleagues, you may feel more confident if you practise the conversation with your family and friends.

What should I tell my employer?

What and how much to tell your employer will depend on your preferences, your workplace and the kind of relationship you have with your employer.

You do not need to share all the details about your diagnosis and treatment with your employer. You only need to let your employer know about anything that may impact upon your ability to work or cause a health and safety risk for yourself or others.

You may want to provide the following information:

  • if and how long you will be able to continue working
  • whether you will be able to perform all of your job duties
  • if you want other people in your workplace to know
  • if you need to take time off from work for treatment and when you are likely to return to work
  • any work adjustments you may need.

You may need to talk with your health professionals before you can answer these questions, and you may not have some answers until you’ve started treatment.

"When I was diagnosed, I called my friend, who was the receptionist, and said what I had and that I would be in hospital a week. I returned to work during initial treatment and kept them informed of what was going on. I told them straight out, although I didn’t tell them all the details."

  • Keep notes about how the conversation went and what was discussed.
  • Be prepared for your employer to bring up your working arrangements. For example, your manager may ask if you want a modified work schedule. If you aren’t sure what you want to do, say that you need time to consider your options.
  • Reassure your manager of your commitment to your job.
  • Refer your manager to to download the fact sheets for employers and workplaces, which include suggestions about talking to someone with cancer.

Should I tell my colleagues?

There is no wrong or right answer, it is a personal decision. Sharing details about the diagnosis and treatment may make you feel uncomfortable or you may not want to answer questions. You may be concerned you’ll be treated differently.

You can talk to your employer about whether or not you plan to tell your colleagues. Points to consider include:

  • if it’s a friendly and close-knit type of workplace or more formal and business-focused
  • the types of relationships you have with other staff
  • who you feel you can trust with personal matters
  • if there has been a previous diagnosis of cancer in the workplace and how it was received.

If the cancer or treatment side effects mean you will be away from work for some time or if they have a visible impact on your behaviour or appearance, your colleagues may speculate about these changes. Some may even become resentful if they think that you aren’t ‘pulling your weight’ and don’t understand why. It can be difficult to hide your illness if you work in a close-knit team. Sharing with close colleagues will give them the opportunity to express their concern for your wellbeing and discuss ways they can help you.

  • You don’t need to tell everyone, especially if you work in a large organisation. You may only want to talk to those closest to you.
  • If you want to tell your colleagues but feel uncomfortable doing it yourself, ask your manager, a close colleague or your human resources manager to pass on the news for you.
  • Find a comfortable and private place and time to talk.
  • Think about how you will handle the reactions of other people. Some colleagues might react with understanding, while others may feel uncomfortable. Planning ahead will help you cope with the different responses.
  • If you tell your colleagues, you may find that news about your diagnosis is spread through office conversations or gossip. People usually have good intentions, but they may not realise that this can make you uncomfortable. Talk to your colleagues if you are upset or ask your manager to get involved.

What are my rights regarding privacy and disclosure?

There is no law that requires you to tell your employer or colleagues that you have cancer. However, if you take paid personal leave because you are sick, your employer may require a medical certificate confirming that you’re unwell. The certificate doesn’t have to say you have cancer.

You’ll need to let your employer know if you are taking medications that may cause side effects, which affect your work or safety at work.

Your employer needs your consent to tell others about your diagnosis unless it’s a health risk, in which case they may be able to disclose this information without your consent.

If you believe your health information has been shared without your consent, talk to your manager. The person who shared the information may be disciplined. You can seek advice from the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner in your state or territory if you are still unhappy.


Keep in mind that social media websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, are publicly accessible and any information there may be visible to your employer and colleagues.

What support can my employer offer me?

If you cannot perform your usual work duties, your employer is obligated by the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ unless it will result in ‘unjustifiable hardship’ to the organisation. These adjustments could be administrative, environmental or procedural, and they could be temporary or long-term.

You and your employer can discuss ideas for possible adjustments to your duties, work space and hours. Your health care team may also have useful suggestions.

Reasonable adjustments that can be made include:

  • additional breaks because of pain or fatigue, or to attend medical appointments
  • temporary duties as agreed with employee and employer
  • reduction of hours, flexi-time, working from home, part-time work or a gradual return to work
  • changes to the workplace such as access to chairs, desks and counters
  • telephone typewriter (TTY) access, voice-activated software, telephone headsets, screen-reading software.

"I approached my school principal with some strategies I had discussed with my doctor and we talked about going part-time and a gradual return. Through work I also received leave entitlements."

Your employer can access advice, and financial and practical assistance to help support you at JobAccess. Call 1800 464 800 or go to

They may also have employee support systems, such as rehabilitation and retraining programs, or an Employee Assistance Program that offers free counselling. Another option may be a buddy or mentoring system with someone else in your workplace who has had cancer. Your colleague can offer advice or help you liaise with management. The way that the system is arranged is up to you and y our employer.

"My employer has an assistance program with six free counselling sessions. I’d recommend that to anyone – just having someone to lean on and talk to is helpful."

Am I entitled to compensation if my cancer is work-related?

About 5000 people are diagnosed with work-related cancer each year1. Substances known to cause cancer include asbestos, coal tar pitch, wood dust and benzene. Radiation exposure can also cause cancer.

People who are diagnosed with a work-related cancer may be entitled to compensation. Contact an experienced solicitor or the Cancer Council’s Legal Referral Service. It is not available in all states and territories, call 13 11 20 to enquire.

1. Occupation Cancer in Australia 2006. Australian Safety and Compensation Council.

Kristin's story

"I’ve been employed with a Commonwealth Government Department since 1995.

"In 2009, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I told my boss I’d be taking extended time off and I wrapped up some work before taking six weeks of sick leave.

"My employer connected me with a workplace rehabilitation consultant who helped create a return to work plan for me. The consultant spoke to my doctors and manager and determined my working hours and tasks.

"Because I was having several months of chemotherapy, I started working from home for four hours once a week. Over a year, my hours increased and I worked at home and in the office. If I worked more time than planned, my employer would re-credit my sick leave.

"Having a written plan was a safety net for me. Each month I would forecast the amount of work I thought I could handle. When I felt I should be working more or was anxious about people’s expectations, I knew I could stick to the approved plan and return at my own pace.

"Being back to full-time work is a juggling act because I’m still fatigued and have a lot of appointments, including for my clinical trial. I also have workrelated stress – I’ve lost some corporate knowledge because I was out of the loop for a year.

"I’m enjoying being back at work. I know I’m very lucky to have a supportive employer.

"I hope employees know that they can ask for support from their employer – especially a written return to work plan. The support from my employer helped me to keep engaged and get back to work when I was able."

Reviewed by: Marie Pitton, Head of Human Resources, Mortgage Choice, NSW; Merilyn Speiser, Principal Consultant, Catalina Consultants, NSW; Helen Tayler, Belconnen Health Centre, Oncology Social Worker, ACT; Pauline Shilkin, Consumer.

Updated: 01 Jan, 2014