Cancer and work

Cancer, work and you


Most people of working age who are diagnosed with cancer wonder how it will affect their ability to work. In many cases, cancer will affect a person’s work life. For example, some of your treatment appointments will probably be scheduled during working hours. Whether you are able to work during treatment will depend on several things:

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

Discuss the demands of your job with your healthcare team. Ask them:

  • how much time off you are likely to need
  • whether you will be able to work throughout your treatment and recovery.

(See more about the side effects you may experience.)

Your decision will also depend on the support and flexibility of your employer. Most people who want to keep working during treatment are able to do so in some capacity. Some people manage by adjusting their work hours  – they may miss a couple of days here and there or work part-time. See suggestions on how employers can support you. 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.

Telling your employer

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 must tell your employer about anything that will affect your ability to do the essential requirements of your job or could reasonably cause a health and safety risk for you or other people. For example, some medicines you are taking may affect your ability or safety at work.

You may decide to wait and tell your employer only if the cancer starts to affect your ability to do your job. Or you may decide to inform them right away so that you can work together to plan how to deal with the effects on you and your workplace. Keeping the diagnosis a secret may cause you unnecessary stress trying to cover it up. Being open with your employer may have some advantages:

  • lets you discuss the support you need and any changes that could be made to your work
  • helps you find out about any benefits you can access, such as additional leave or income protection insurance
  • makes it easier to organise flexible working arrangements or to take time off work for appointments or treatment
  • reduces the risk that any effects on your work will be seen as poor work performance.

If you want to keep the diagnosis to yourself,  remember that information you share on social media websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, may be visible to your employer and colleagues.

Your rights regarding privacy and disclosure

Your employer needs your consent to tell others about your illness and treatment unless it’s a serious health risk to others, in which case they may be able to disclose this information without your consent (but only to the extent necessary to reduce the risk). If you believe your health information has been shared without your consent, talk to your employer. The person who shared the information may be disciplined. You can seek advice from the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.

If you take paid personal leave because you are sick, your employer may require a medical certificate or other evidence confirming that you're not fit for work The certificate doesn’t have to say you have cancer. Depending how long you are away, your employer may ask for some details about why you are absent.

What to tell your employer

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

You may want to provide the following information:

  • if and how long you will be able to continue working
  • if 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 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 healthcare team before you can answer these questions. Some answers may not be clear until you’ve started treatment. Remember that you do not need to share all the details of your illness with your employer. You only need to tell them about anything that may affect your ability to work or cause a health and safety risk for you or others.

Talking to your employer
  • You may feel more confident if you practise what you want to say with your family and friends.
  • Decide beforehand how much information you want to share. Prepare some notes so you don’t forget anything.
  • Consider taking a support person with you to help with the discussion.
  • Request a meeting in a quiet, private place where you won’t be interrupted. Allow plenty of time for your discussion.
  • Come to the meeting with some ideas about your needs and how any effects on the workplace can be dealt with.
  • Reassure your employer of your commitment to your job.
  • Be prepared for your employer to bring up your working arrangements: for example, they may ask if you want to change your work schedule. If you don’t know, say that you need time to think about your options.
  • Keep notes about the discussion. Write down any agreed changes to your working arrangements for you and your employer to sign.
  • Don’t feel that you have to agree on everything in the first meeting. You may both need to get more information.
  • Refer your manager to Cancer Council’s online Workplace Fact Sheets for employers and workplaces or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.

Telling your co-workers

Whether or not you tell your co-workers is a personal decision that depends on what you want to do. Sharing details about the diagnosis and treatment may make you feel uncomfortable or you may not want to answer questions. You may be concerned your co-workers will treat you differently.

You can talk to your employer about whether or not you plan to tell your co-workers. These are some points to consider:

  • the types of relationships you have with other staff
  • whether your workplace is collaborative, friendly and nurturing, or distrustful and negative
  • whom you feel you can trust with personal matters
  • the effect on team unity if you tell some people and not others
  • how your workplace has dealt with other employees with cancer or other serious illnesses
  • whether your co-workers need to know what to do if you become unwell at work.

It can be difficult to hide your illness if you work in a close-knit team. You may be away from work for some time.  The cancer or treatment side effects may also have a visible impact on your behaviour or appearance. Your co-workers may wonder about these changes. Some may even become resentful if they think that you aren’t doing your fair share of work and don’t understand why.

Sharing information about your cancer with close workmates gives them with an opportunity to express their concern for your wellbeing and discuss ways they can help you.

Talking to your colleagues
  • You don’t need to tell everyone, especially if you work in a large organisation. You may only want to inform your immediate team members or close workmates.
  • Decide beforehand how much information you want to share.
  • Find a comfortable and private place, and set aside time to talk.
  • Think about how you will handle different reactions. Some co-workers might react with understanding; others may feel uncomfortable or afraid. Planning ahead will help you cope with different responses.
  • Let your colleagues know about the kind of support and help you need, and how this may change over time. It’s okay to let them know that you don’t want to hear about other people’s cancer experiences.
  • If you feel uncomfortable about telling your co-workers yourself, ask your manager, a close workmate or the human resources manager to pass on the news for you.
  • You may find that news about your diagnosis spreads around the office. Let your co-workers know up-front if you would prefer the news to be kept confidential. If you are upset, talk to your co-workers or ask your manager to get involved.

Cancer and your rights to keep your job

In general, discrimination in the workplace due to cancer and treatment is unlawful. This includes stopping you taking leave, offering you a more junior role or dismissing you for a reason related to your cancer. If you are unsure of how your employer will react, it’s good to know your rights and your employer’s responsibilities.

How your employer can support you

Under Australian law, cancer is considered a disability. If you cannot perform your usual work duties, the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992 requires your employer to make changes to the workplace so you can keep working. These are known as reasonable adjustments.

An employer can refuse to make changes only if the changes would cause unjustifiable  hardship to their business or, in some cases, on reasonable business grounds. See workplace rights for more information on protections for workers under anti-discrimination laws.

Changes could be to your duties, workspace or hours, and they could be temporary or long term. You and your employer can discuss ideas for possible changes. Your healthcare team may also have useful suggestions. These are some examples of reasonable adjustments:

  • extra breaks because of pain or fatigue, or to attend medical appointments
  • temporary duties as agreed, reduced hours, flexitime, working from home, part-time work or a gradual return to work
  • changes to the workspace such as a more suitable chair, height-adjustable desks or counter, or ergonomic work tools
  • providing new technology, such as voice-activated software, telephone headsets, a hearing loop or screen-reading software
  • setting you up to use the National Relay Service on your computer, tablet, mobile phone or telephone typewriter (TTY).

Your employer can get advice, financial support and practical assistance to help support you from JobAccess, an Australian Government service. Call 1800 464 800.

Many employers also have employee support systems, such as rehabilitation and retraining programs, or an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that offers free, confidential counselling. Another option may be a buddy or mentoring system with someone else in your workplace who has had cancer. Your co-workers can offer advice or help you liaise with management. How any buddy or mentoring system is arranged is up to you and your employer.

Compensation for work-related cancer

About 5000 people are diagnosed with work-related cancer each year. Work-related cancers can result from exposure to sunlight, toxic dusts and some chemicals (including asbestos, heavy metals, diesel engine exhaust, solvents and pesticides) and ionising radiaiton.

If you have been diagnosed with a work-related cancer, you may be entitled to workers compensation. It’s important to get legal advice from a lawyer who specialises in workers compensation matters. To find a lawyer, contact the Law Society in your state or territory. To make a claim, notify your state or territory WorkSafe authority about your cancer and why you think it is work-related. A time limit may apply.

For more information, call Cancer Council 13 11 20.

Managing your working life after diagnosis

Work is an important part of many people’s lives. Whether you are able to continue working during treatment for cancer or while caring for someone with cancer will depend on your personal situation, including these areas:

After weighing up all the competing factors you may decide to keep working, take a break or retire from work. If you take a break, you might return to your existing job after treatment or you may want to change job or careers. There are things that you should think about for each of these options.

Keep working

How much support do you have from your employer, including flexible working arrangements or workplace adjustments?

Take time off

You may be able to use your paid leave entitlements, take unpaid time off or claim on insurance.

Return to work

There are several ways you can return to work:

  • slot back into your existing job straightaway
  • ease back into a full workload, with some workplace adjustments and a return-to-work plan
  • find a new job due to changes in your abilities or priorities.
Retire from work

You may decide that retirement is the best option.

Expert content reviewers:

Kerryann White, Manager, People and Culture, Cancer Council SA; Nicola Martin, Principal, McCabe Curwood, NSW; Jane Auchettl, Coordinator, Education and Training Programs, Cancer Council Victoria; Craig Brewer, Consumer; Alana Cochrane, Human Resources Business Partner, Greater Bank Newcastle, NSW; Shona Gates, Senior Social Worker, North West Cancer Centre, North West Regional Hospital, TAS; Dianne Head, Cancer Nurse Coordinator, Metastatic Breast Cancer, Crown Princess Mary Cancer Centre Westmead, NSW; Alex Kelly, Talent Acquisition Business Partner, Aon, NSW; Prof Bogda Koczwara AM, Senior Staff Specialist, Department of Medical Oncology, Flinders Medical Centre, SA; Sharyn McGowan, Occupational Therapist, Bendigo Health, VIC; Jeanne Potts, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Michelle Smerdon, Legal and Financial Support Services Manager, Cancer Council NSW

Download PDF Order FREE booklet

Talking bubbles icon

Questions about cancer?

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

Contact a cancer nurse