Self-employment and cancer

Wednesday 1 January, 2014

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On this page:  Managing your business | Telling clients about the cancerFinancial issuesCarol's story | Key points

Many Australians run their own business or work as a freelancer, contractor, farmer or entrepreneur. They may be a sole trader or employ other people.

Making a decision about working

A major concern when you are diagnosed with cancer may be how, and if, you can keep your business running.

Many self-employed people with cancer find ways to have cancer treatment while keeping their business on track. Depending on the nature of your business, self-employment can give you more control over your work schedule and allow you to manage the time needed for treatment or recovery.

The decisions you make will depend on your individual circumstances. It will help to get as much information as you can about the cancer and the possible side effects, so you know how it may affect what you can do. If you rely on your income or if your business has been a major focus of your life, taking time off or not work permanently may be a major concern. See the coping with side effects section, as this may help you make a decision.

If you are uncertain about what to do, discuss your options with family or friends. You could also seek professional financial advice. Your options might include:

  • checking existing insurance policies for entitlements
  • claiming early entitlements from your superannuation fund
  • talking to Centrelink about government benefits.

Managing your business

To keep your business running, you may need a plan to manage the changes caused by treatment. Talk to your health care team about what to expect from treatment as this might help you decide what you can handle.

These suggestions may help you:

  • Be realistic about how much work you can continue to do.
  • Decide what has to be done now and what can be left until later.
  • Use your energy to do the tasks that you enjoy the most or that you must do yourself.
  • Consider subcontracting, hiring temporary staff or asking friends in the same trade or profession to lend a hand.
  • Ask for or accept any offers of help from family and friends.
  • Consider working from home or changing your role.
  • Let any staff you have know what changes you are making to keep the business running.
  • Aim to finish any high-priority work before you start treatment.
  • Think about other ways to do your job. Could you work from home instead of travelling? Would it be practical to use technologies such as smartphones and the internet instead of meeting face-to-face? If you ship merchandise, could a fulfilment house handle this temporarily?
  • Check any existing insurance policies for entitlements and let your insurance company know about changes to your work situation.
  • Contact Cancer Council’s Small Business Advisory program for more information. Call Cancer Council on 13 11 20 to check if this service is available in your state or territory.

Telling clients about the cancer

 You do not have to disclose the cancer to your clients. Your instinct might be to hide the news of your diagnosis, but if you want to talk about it, you should decide who to tell, what to say and how your business will continue to meet ongoing commitments. Some people choose to tell only established clients.

  • Be direct and talk about what you know. For example, confirm your working hours.
  • Communicate your abilities and emphasise your strengths with statements such as, “My hours may change, but the project will be under control and completed on time.”
  • Try to maintain a professional relationship with your client. You may not want to share your fears and insecurities.
  • If you have physical side effects such as hair loss, you may want to postpone meetings in person. Use technology, such as email or conference calling, to stay in touch. If you have told the client about the cancer, you may feel comfortable wearing a head scarf to meetings.
  • Be prepared for a range of reactions if you tell the client about your health. Some people will be compassionate; others may be more aloof. A client may choose to employ someone else.
  • Think about alternative or flexible ways of working that could suit both your needs.
  • Consider hiring a subcontractor or refer the client to someone else in your field, if you can’t meet the client’s needs.

Financial issues

For self-employed people who do not have paid personal or annual leave, taking time off for cancer treatment may mean being without income for several weeks or months, which can be difficult.

Consult a financial or business advisor

This professional can help you assess your financial position and come up with strategies about how to manage your situation. They can also give you suggestions about dealing with debts and help you if you need money urgently. For information about financial counselling and to find a counsellor, see

Look into claiming on other insurance policies

You may hold relevant policies, such as income protection, trauma insurance or key person insurance.

Check your superannuation fund

Although self-employed people are not required by law to contribute to a superannuation fund, many people have retirement savings. Check if you have any insurance policies linked to the fund, such as disability benefits. Even if you have not contributed regularly to the fund, you may be able to claim on insurance policies.

Contact Centrelink

You may be eligible for benefits or pensions. There are different types of income support payments for people in financial hardship, including benefits for farmers. Call 13 27 17 or visit

Carol's story

"I’m a sole trader with an at-home business. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005 at age 43.

"After diagnosis, I had several procedures, including a lumpectomy, sentinel node biopsy and mastectomy. My recovery from surgery was around Christmas, so I only did limited billing and I mailed holiday cards to clients. I also renegotiated some deadlines so I could complete projects later than originally planned.

"I had a couple months of chemotherapy after surgery. It was a horrendous experience. I was only able to do limited amounts of work between treatment sessions. When chemotherapy was over, I started working more regularly while my hair was growing back.

"My income was basically halved for the two years after my cancer diagnosis. My treatment went on for 18 months and I worked as much as I could, but I couldn’t function at my usual level. I was lucky because my husband works full-time and I received an insurance payout – we weren’t dependent on my income. It would have been a much bigger financial burden if that hadn’t been the case.

"In fact, I think if you’re going to choose any type of work to suit a cancer diagnosis, selfemployment is it. You can tailor your schedule around treatment. I was used to managing my own time and I continued to do it when I was unwell.

"Ultimately, the diagnosis has caused me to be open to different ways of thinking, and I’ve developed kindness and compassion. I’m more intuitive and I now know how important emotional wellbeing is, no matter what your job.

"I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but my cancer experience changed the way that I work for the better."

Key points

  • Loss of income can be a major concern for self-employed people with cancer.
  • Creating a plan may help you manage your business. Consider the possible impact of your treatment and side effects; the nature of your job; and how much support you may receive from friends, family and subcontractors. Try to be realistic about your health and what you will be able to do.
  • If your usual working patterns change, you may wish to advise clients that you are dealing with a family or health issue.
  • Setting priorities about essential work, hiring temporary staff and changing your usual ways of working can help keep your business running.
  • You don’t have to tell clients about the cancer. If you decide to share news of your diagnosis, emphasis how you will continue to meet your business commitments.
  • For many self-employed people, it is difficult to take unpaid time off. Consult a financial or business advisor, check your superannuation fund, claim on insurance policies, and contact Centrelink to get financial support and advice.

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