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Cancer, work and you

Wednesday 13 March, 2019
Manager talking to employee about cancer

When you’re diagnosed with cancer it’s natural to wonder how it will affect your work. Medical appointments will often be scheduled during working hours and treatment may make you feel tired and weary.

The decision to work during cancer is personal and will depend very much on your own circumstances.

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

Do I have to tell my employer?

While there’s no law that requires you to share the diagnosis with your employer, you do have some obligations. You must tell your employer about anything that will affect your ability to do your job or could cause a health and safety risk for yourself or others. You may decide to only tell if the cancer starts to affect your job. Or you may tell your employer right away. Being open may: 

  • Enable you to discuss the support you need and any adjustments that could be made to your work.
  • Help you find out about any benefits you can access, such as additional leave.
  • Make it easier to organise flexible working arrangements.
  • Reduce the risk of any impacts on your work seen as poor performance.

I’m worried that I’ll get sacked. What are my rights?

Being discriminated against or being dismissed because you have cancer is against the law. Cancer is considered a disability and an employer must take reasonable steps to accommodate an employee’s illness, unless it will result in ‘unjustifiable hardship’ on the organisation.

This may include making minor changes to duties, reducing hours, allowing you to work from home, or providing you with additional equipment. If you feel you have been unfairly discriminated against because you have cancer, visit the Fair Work website ( to learn about the next steps you can take.

Tips for talking to your employer

  • Decide beforehand how much information you want to share.
  • Request a meeting in a private place where you won’t be interrupted.
  • Have ideas about your needs and how any impacts on the workplace could be dealt with.
  • Reassure your manager of your commitment to your job.
  • Be prepared for your employer to bring up working arrangements; they may ask if you want a modified work schedule. If you don’t know, say that you need time – you don’t have to agree on everything in the first meeting.
  • Write down any agreed arrangements for you and your manager to sign.
  • Consider taking a support person with you to assist with the discussion.

“Two days a week, I would have chemotherapy. I scheduled it at 1pm and I would work a half-day and spend the afternoon at home in bed.” – Sarah

Should I tell my colleagues?

This a personal decision. Sharing may make you uncomfortable; you may not want questions. You also may worry that you’ll be treated differently.

This is normal, however it’s important to be aware that it can be difficult to hide your illness. If you’ll be away for some time or if the treatment has a visible impact, your workmates may speculate. Some may even become resentful if they think you aren’t ‘pulling your weight’ and don’t understand why.

  • Sharing with close colleagues gives them a chance to express concern and understand how they can help you. Here are a few things to think about when talking to colleagues:
  • You don’t need to tell everyone; you may only want your team to know.
  • Decide beforehand how much information you want to share.
  • Think about different reactions. Some people might be understanding, others may feel uncomfortable or afraid. Planning will help you cope with responses.
  • Let your colleagues know about the support and help you need.
  • If you feel uncomfortable telling your colleagues, ask your manager or a close colleague to pass on the news for you.
  • Let your colleagues know if you’d prefer the news to be kept confidential.

Information for carers

If you’re caring for someone with cancer, you may also need to take extra time off work to do so. Under the Fair Work Act 2009, if you have worked for your employer for at least 12 months, you also have the right to request an adjustment to your work hours, location or pattern of work.

Need more?

Download our free guide Cancer, Work and You  or call our cancer nurses on 13 11 20. We also have a Cancer in the Workplace fact sheet, to help employers understand their responsibilities.

You can also visit for information about your rights.

Last year, our experienced cancer nurses responded to more than 11,000 requests for information and support. Support services are 100% funded by people like you. Thank you. You’re wonderful.

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Questions about cancer?

Call or email our experienced cancer nurses for information and support.

Contact a cancer nurse