Making decisions about working

Wednesday 1 January, 2014

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On this page:  What to considerEmployment optionsRetirementKey points

When you are diagnosed with cancer and throughout treatment, you may feel overwhelmed by all the decisions you have to make. Weighing up whether to continue working, have a break or retire may be difficult.

This page discusses the factors you may consider when making a decision and the options you have. Try to avoid feeling rushed. Although things may seem to be happening quickly, there is usually time to make an informed decision.

If you are having trouble deciding what is important to you, make a list of reasons for and against. If you are overwhelmed, it may also help to talk to family, friends or a counsellor to clarify what you want.

Reasons to work

Some people need to keep working for financial reasons, but work can also:

  • be enjoyable, stimulating and rewarding
  • give you a chance to socialise
  • help you maintain a sense of identity
  • develop your skills, creativity and knowledge
  • keep you in contact with friends and colleagues who can offer regular support
  • keep you busy and get you out of the house
  • provide a routine, which is important to some people.

What to consider when making a decision about working


  • What type of treatment will you have? 
  • How often will you have treatment?
  • Does your treatment schedule suit your working hours or can it be adjusted?
  • What are the potential side effects and how might they affect your job?
  • Does your medical team have any advice about how other patients manage treatment and work?


  • How much does your wage or salary contribute to your family’s total income?
  • Do you have any personal leave, annual leave or long service leave that would allow you to take paid time off?
  • Is taking unpaid leave an option?
  • Do you have savings or insurance that you can access?
  • How will reducing your work hours or taking time off affect your income?
  • What additional expenses, such as travel for treatment or medication, can you anticipate?
  • How can you manage non-cancer-related debts or bills, such as mortgage and car repayments, during treatment and recovery?


  • Do you enjoy your job?
  • Are you pursuing specific career goals?
  • Have you discussed your situation with your manager or human resources department?
  • Is your manager supportive and is your workplace able to offer some flexible working practices such as working from home?
  • Are you physically and emotionally able to work?
  • Could your role be modified to make your job easier?
  • Would your workmates be a source of support?


  • Are there any aspects of your personal life that you also have to consider, such as children or other financial dependents?
  • Will working give you a sense of normality or take your mind off cancer?

Employment options

Working during treatment

Cancer treatment will most likely affect your job performance in some way. This does not mean that you will be unable to do your job, but it does mean that you will probably need some flexibility to make work easier.

You and your employer should discuss if your current role needs to be modified or if flexible working arrangements will help to accommodate your treatment and side effects. See the coping with side effects section for information and tips about working while coping with side effects from treatment. See also the returning to work section.

Taking time off

Some people find working during treatment and recovery difficult and decide to take a break. They may make this decision straightaway or after returning to work and finding it physically and emotionally overwhelming.

Discuss your leave options with you employer. You can use paid leave entitlements or ask for unpaid time off. If you have disability insurance or income protection, you may be able to receive a portion of your income during the time you are unable to work.

"When I had the bone marrow transplant, my colleague stepped into my role. At times, I worked from hospital, but I took 2–3 months of sick leave and eased back into work."

If you are thinking of resigning from your job, check your insurance coverage first because leaving may affect your entitlements. If you decide to take extended leave, speak to your manager or human resources department. Let them know that you would like to return to work when your health improves.


Read Cancer Council’s Cancer and Your Finances booklet for more detailed information about financial, insurance and superannuation issues.


Some people give up work completely when they are diagnosed with cancer. This might be the right choice for you if you are already close to retirement or if the cancer is advanced.

It is natural to have mixed feelings about retirement. How you feel may depend on your age and your plans before the cancer diagnosis. Some people experience a sense of loss and others worry they’ll be bored. Most people take time to adjust to retirement, and making plans for dealing with the impact on your sense of self, finances and relationships can make the transition easier.

You may find it helps to talk about these responses with the hospital social worker, your friends and family, spiritual leader, counsellor, or Cancer Council nurse.

Key points

  • After a cancer diagnosis it can be difficult to decide if you want to continue working, adjust your working hours, take a break or retire.
  • Employment may not only be a source of income. A job can also provide opportunities for social interaction, creativity, learning and travel. Working may make you feel like you are contributing to society.
  • You will have to weigh up several factors, including your treatment options, the flexibility of your workplace and personal matters (such as your finances).
  • It may help to make a list of advantages and disadvantages about your different options or talk to someone you trust.
  • You may be able to take time off or some extended leave.
  • Some people decide to retire. It is normal to have mixed feelings about retirement, depending on your age and what your plans were before the cancer diagnosis.
  • Avoid making a hasty decision. Talk to family or friends and seek professional financial advice before making a decision.

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