You may be running your own company or work as a freelancer, contractor, farmer or entrepreneur. You may be working on your own or employ other people. A major concern when you are diagnosed with cancer may be how, and if, you can keep your business running.
Making a decision about working
Many self-employed people with cancer find ways to have treatment while keeping their business on track. Depending on the nature of your business, self-employment can give you more control over your work schedule. You may be able to work around treatment sessions and set aside the time needed for treatment or recovery.
The decisions you make will depend on your individual circumstances. The type of cancer, its impact on your day-to-day function, the proposed treatment and potential side effects are all factors to consider. If you rely on your income or if your business has been a major focus of your life, taking time off or not working permanently may be a major concern. Reading coping with side effects may help you make a decision.
If you are uncertain about what to do, discuss your options with family or friends or a professional financial adviser. Your options may include:
- checking existing insurance policies for entitlements, including any benefits payable through your superannuation
- claiming early entitlements from your superannuation fund (make sure to get financial advice about how this will affect your retirement)
- talking to Centrelink about government benefits
- selling or scaling back your business.
Managing your business
To keep your business running, you may need a business plan to manage any changes. Talk to your health care team about what to expect from treatment as this might help you decide what you can handle.
These suggestions may help you to combine work and treatment:
- Be realistic about how much work you can continue to do.
- Prioritise what aspects of working/owning your business are important to you and what you can let go or delegate.
- Decide what has to be done now and what can be left until later.
- Use your energy to do the tasks that you enjoy or that you must do yourself.
- Consider subcontracting, hiring temporary staff or asking friends in the same trade or profession to lend a hand.
- Ask for or accept any offers of help from family and friends.
- Consider working from home or changing your role.
- Let staff know what changes you are making to keep the business running.
- Aim to finish any high-priority or complicated work before you start treatment.
- Think about other ways to do your job. Could you travel less for work? Could you work from home more? Would it be practical to use technologies such as smart phones and video calls instead of having face-to-face meetings? If you ship goods, could a fulfilment house handle this temporarily?
- Check any existing insurance policies for entitlements and let your insurance company know about changes to your work situation.
- Seek advice from any professional associations you belong to.
- Contact Cancer Council’s Legal, Financial, Small Business and Workplace Referral Services on 13 11 20 to find out what services are available in your area and whether you are eligible for this assistance.
Telling clients about the cancer
You do not have to let your clients know you have cancer. Your instinct might be to hide the news of your diagnosis but, if you want to talk about it, you should decide whom to tell and what to say. Let your clients know how your business will continue to meet ongoing commitments. Some people choose to tell only established clients.
Talking to your clients
- Be direct and talk about what you know. For example, let them know your work hours and the best way to contact you. During treatment, you could suggest that clients email you to set up a time to talk.
- Communicate your abilities and emphasise your strengths with statements such as “My hours may change, but the project will be under control and completed on time”.
- Try to maintain a professional relationship with your client. You may not want to share your fears and insecurities.
- Think about alternative or flexible ways of working that could suit both your needs.
- If you have physical side effects such as hair loss, you may want to postpone meetings in person. Use technology, such as email or conference calling, to stay in touch. If you have told the client about the cancer, you may feel comfortable with a face-to-face meeting.
- Be prepared for a range of reactions if you tell a client about your health. Some people will be compassionate; others may be more aloof. Some clients may choose to work with someone else.
- Consider subcontracting some work or referring clients to someone else if you can’t meet their needs.
Telling employees about the cancer
You do not have to tell your employees that you have cancer but you may want to consider the impact on morale if you don’t tell them and they find out anyway. If you decide to let your employees know, you will need to consider what to tell them.
It is natural for your employees to be concerned about the impact of your diagnosis and treatment on their future or job security. They may also be a source of support and come up with some options you hadn’t considered for managing any changes to the business caused by the cancer diagnosis.
Managing financial issues
For self-employed people who do not have paid leave, taking time off for cancer treatment may mean being without income for several weeks or months, which can be difficult.
- Contact Cancer Council: Your local Cancer Council may be able to organise financial advice or assistance. Call 13 11 20 to find out what services are available in your local area.
- Consult a financial or business adviser: They can help you assess your financial position and come up with strategies about how to manage your finances. To find a business adviser in your area, see business.gov.au/advisory-services/search. You can find a financial adviser through the Financial Planning Association of Australia or the Association of Financial Advisers. You could also talk with your accountant if you have one.
- Consult a financial counsellor: A financial counsellor can help if you are suffering financial hardship. For free, confidential and independent financial counselling, contact the National Debt Helpline (phone 1800 007 007) or the Rural Financial Counselling Service on 1800 686 175.
- Look into claiming on other insurance policies: You may hold relevant policies, such as income protection insurance, trauma insurance or key person insurance.
- Check your superannuation fund: Although self-employed people are not required by law to contribute to a superannuation fund, many people have retirement savings. Check if you have any insurance policies linked to the fund, such as disability benefits, as you may be eligible to make a claim. In some cases, insurance benefits may be cut if no contributions have been made in 12 or 18 months, so check your fund details. Check if your super fund provides free financial advice.
- Contact Centrelink: You may be eligible for benefits or pensions. There are different types of income support payments for people in financial hardship. Call 132 717 or visit humanservices.gov.au. For information about the Farm Household Allowance, call the Farmer Assistance Hotline on 132 316 or visit humanservices.gov.au
"I think if you’re going to choose any type of work to suit a cancer diagnosis, self-employment is it. You can tailor your schedule around treatment. I was used to managing my own time and I continued to do it when I was unwell." – Carol
- Try to be realistic about your health and what you will be able to do.
- Prioritising projects, hiring temporary staff and changing your usual ways of working can help keep your business running.
- If your usual working patterns change, you may decide to tell clients that you are dealing with a family or health issue.
- You don’t have to tell clients about the cancer. If you decide to share the news, emphasise how you will continue to meet your business commitments.
- If you have employees, you don’t have to tell them about the cancer. If you decide to let them know, talk to them about how you plan to deal with any changes to the business while you are having treatment.
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.