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Cancer, work and you

Making decisions about working

When you are diagnosed with cancer and throughout treatment, the many decisions you need to make can be hard. Adding decisions about work to that load can feel overwhelming. This section aims to help by giving you things to think about, and suggesting options that may be available to you.

Work is an important part of many people's lives. It can give a sense of purpose, independence and stability. For many people with cancer, the idea of giving up work can feel like another loss. Others may be happy to take time out from their career to focus on their health.

Being able to work with cancer, or while caring for someone with cancer, depends on several factors. These include:

  • the symptoms of the cancer
  • the timing of treatment and any side effects
  • workplace flexibility
  • your financial situation
  • what support and responsibilities you have.

Thinking about these things can help you to work out your best options. You may need or want to keep working, to take a break, or to resign or retire. If you take a break, you may return to your job, change jobs, or even look for a new career that better suits your circumstances.

Although things may seem to be happening quickly, there is usually time to make a well-informed decision. Try to avoid feeling rushed, and get any advice you need. 

If you are having trouble deciding what is important to you, make a list of reasons for and against. It may help to talk to family, friends or a counsellor to clarify what you want. You may also want to consult a workplace EAP or seek input from your general practitioner (GP) and cancer specialists. You can also call Cancer Council 13 11 20 to see if they can connect you with a person who has experienced a  similar situation.

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.

Discuss with your employer whether your current role needs to be modified or if flexible working arrangements will help you manage your treatment and side effects. Think about setting out any agreed changes in a plan (similar to a return-to-work plan). Let your employer know that you may need to change any plans you make as time or treatment goes on. This is because how well you feel, and your ability to work, can change over time.

Ask your treatment team whether they offer very early, late or weekend appointments or chemotherapy from home, so that you can fit your treatment sessions around your work. Also check with your treatment team if there are any precautions you need to take in the workplace to protect others.

Cancer and its treatment may affect your ability to drive safely. Doctors have a duty to advise patients not to drive if they are a risk to themselves or others. If you are unable to drive, this may affect your ability to work. Before you start driving again, seek your doctor’s advice.

See more information and tips about working while coping with side effects from treatment and  returning to work.

Reasons to work

Some people need to keep working for financial reasons, but there are other benefits to working:

  • is enjoyable, stimulating and rewarding
  • gives you a chance to socialise and decrease your sense of isolation
  • helps you maintain a sense of identity
  • develops your skills, creativity and knowledge
  • helps you continue to build a career or remain on your chosen pathway
  • keeps you busy and gets you out of the house
  • keeps you in contact with friends and workmates who can offer regular support
  • provides a purpose and feeling of accomplishment
  • gives you a sense of control at a time when cancer and treatment may make you feel that things are out of your control
  • provides a routine, which is important to some people.

What to consider when making a decision about working


  • How does the cancer, treatment or medicines you need to take affect you?
  • Have your physical or cognitive abilities changed?
  • How often will you have treatment?
  • Does your treatment schedule suit your working hours? If not, can it be changed?
  • Where will you have treatment? Can you have all or some of your treatment close to home, or use telehealth for some appointments?
  • What type of treatment will you have, what are the expected side effects and how might they affect your job?
  • Are there other treatments that would still be effective but might make it easier to keep working?
  • Will the side effects be temporary or long term?
  • Does your health care team have any advice about how other people manage treatment and work?
  • Would it be help to talk to someone who has had similar treatment to see how they managed? Cancer Council runs Cancer Connect, a free telephone peer support service. Call 13 11 20 to find out more.


  • Are there any aspects of your personal life that you also have to consider, such as children or other financial dependants?
  • Do you have any other caring responsibilities, such as elderly parents or other relatives needing care?
  • Can your family and friends provide practical and emotional support, such as driving you to appointments, helping around the house or providing meals?
  • Will working give you a sense of normality or help to take your mind off the cancer?
  • Will the emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis make it hard for you to concentrate on work?
  • How will the stage and expected outcome of the cancer affect you?


  • Are you single or the only wage earner?
  • How much of your household’s total income is made up of your wage?
  • Do you have any 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?
  • Does your employer have any insurance that you can access?
  • Are you able to access your superannuation or does your fund have insurance you're eligible for? 
  • How will reducing your work hours or taking time off affect your standard of living?
  • What additional expenses, such as medicines or travel for treatment, do you expect?
  • How can you manage non-cancer-related debts or bills, such as mortgage and car repayments?
  • Do you need professional advice to assist with decisions that affect your finances?


  • Do you enjoy your job?
  • Are you pursuing specific career goals which will be impacted by taking time off?
  • Have you discussed your situation with your manager or human resources department?
  • Is your manager supportive? Can your workplace offer some flexible working practices (such as working from home)?
  • Is your job very demanding?
  • 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?
  • How much do other staff members depend on you and the work you do?
  • If you have made a workers compensation claim, will you be entitled to receive weekly compensation to cover the loss of income if you stop working?


See Cancer and Your Finances for more detailed information about financial, insurance and superannuation issues or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.

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 too physically and emotionally difficult.

Discuss your leave options with your employer. You can use paid leave entitlements or ask for unpaid time off.

  • If you decide to take time off, consider setting up a system for staying in touch with your employer so you know what is happening at work.
  • If you decide to take extended leave, speak to your manager or human resources department. Let them know you would like to return to work when your health improves.
“I took sick leave to have surgery to remove part of my bowel. When I was well enough to have chemo, I worked part-time from home when I felt up to it.” – Carmen


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. You may find it helps to talk about these responses with your friends and family, a hospital social worker, spiritual leader, work EAP or other counsellor, or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.

Most people take time to adjust to retirement, and making plans for dealing with the effect on your sense of self, finances and relationships can make the change easier. Some people find it helpful to get involved with volunteer work as part of moving into retirement. 

See Emotions for more information.

Cancer, Work and You

Download our Cancer, Work and You booklet to learn more and find support.

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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.

Page last updated:

The information on this webpage was adapted from Cancer, Work and You (2023 edition). This webpage was last updated in July 2023. 

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