Working with cancer
Cancer can affect your work life in different ways, not just because of how well you may or may not feel. For example, some of your treatment appointments will probably be scheduled during working hours. Whether you are able to work before, during or after treatment will depend on several things:
- how cancer impacts your day-to-day function
- the type and stage of cancer
- the treatment you have and any side effects
- how you feel during and after treatment
- the kind of work you do.
Discuss the demands of your job with your health care team. Talk through what your work day is like, including how you travel to work. Ask them:
- how much time off you are likely to need
- whether you will be able to work throughout treatment, recovery and beyond.
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 will depend on what is possible and most practical 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. You may need to think about what this means for you now and in the future. For example, some medicines you are taking may affect your ability to safely do your job.
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. It's your choice.
If you decide to tell your employer, it may help to talk to your doctor first. Your doctor can explain what to expect during cancer and treatment, and how it may affect your work.
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
- 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 there is a chance that your job may have caused or contributed to the cancer, find out if you are entitled to workers compensation. Workers compensation laws may need you to notify your employer of your condition as soon as you can.
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.
- Let your employer know that you may need to revisit any plans you both make, depending on how you cope with treatment side effects, recovery, etc.
- 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.
- This is a good time to update your emergency contact person with your employer.
- Refer your manager to Cancer Council’s online Workplace Fact Sheets for employers and workplaces or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.
Your rights regarding privacy
If you tell your employer about your diagnosis, they should keep this information confidential. Your employer needs your consent to tell others about your health, and there are limits on how your employer can use this information in your workplace. For example, your manager can ask human resources (HR) how they can best support you, but they can't tell your team without your permission. Rarely, your employer may share information without your consent if there's a serious health risk to others.
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 need to take time off work for treatment and when you are likely to return to work
- if you will be able to perform all of your job duties
- if you want other people in your workplace to know
- any work adjustments you may need.
You may need to talk with your health care team before you can answer these questions. Some answers may not be clear until you’ve started treatment, and things may change such as unexpected side effects or needing more time off than planned.
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. This may include your exposure to viruses like COVID-19 if you are immunocompromised.
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. There are limited reasons your employer can take certain action (e.g. when your can't perform the main part of your job). 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 must allow you to work flexibly (within reasonable guidelines) and approve the changes within 21 days of any request. The only reason an employer can refuse is 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 health care 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.
Telling your co-workers
How much you share with your colleagues or team is a personal decision. Sharing details about the diagnosis and treatment may make you feel uncomfortable or you may not feel ready or want to answer questions about your health. You may be concerned your co-workers will treat you differently. Managers may worry about how much to share with their team and the effect it may have, or what is considered professional or too personal. There are usually no rules about what is okay to share, so do what feels right to you.
If you tell your employer, you may want to let them know if you plan on telling your co-workers too. These are some points to consider:
- the types of relationships you have with other staff
- whether your workplace is friendly and supportive, 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 or HR person to get involved.
- If you decide that you want to keep the diagnosis to yourself, remember that information you share on social media, such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, may also be seen by your employer and co-workers.
Expert content reviewers:
Brooke Russell, Principal Occupational Therapist, WA Cancer Occupational Therapy, WA; Bianca Alessi, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Dr Prunella Blinman, Medical Oncologist, Concord Cancer Centre, Concord Repatriation General Hospital, NSW; James Chirgwin, Physiotherapist, The Wesley Hospital, QLD; Danielle Curnoe, Consumer; Simon Gates, Barrister, Tasmanian Bar, TAS; Justin Hargreaves, Medical Oncology Nurse Practitioner, Bendigo Health Cancer Centre, VIC; Kaylene Jacques, Director, People and Communications, Cancer Council NSW; Alex Kelly, Senior People Attraction Advisor, Human Resources, Allianz Australia Insurance, NSW; Legal reviewer; Georgina Lohse, Social Worker, GV Health, VIC; Lesley McQuire, Consumer, Cancer Voices NSW.
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The information on this webpage was adapted from Cancer, Work and You (2023 edition). This webpage was last updated in July 2023.