The main treatments for cancer include are chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery. Other treatments, such as hormone therapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy, can also be used for some types of cancer. You may experience side effects from these treatments that make it harder to do your job.
This section provides tips for managing some common side effects. The Understanding Chemotherapy, Understanding Radiotherapy and Overcoming Cancer Pain sections have more tips and information about specific side effects.
It can take time to get over the side effects of treatment. Making adjustments to your work schedule and environment may make things easier. If treatment side effects stop you from working, your doctor may be able to change your treatment or prescribe some medicine to help you feel better. Always consult your doctor about possible side effects of medicines. Some drugs can cause drowsiness and make it hard to think clearly or operate heavy machinery safely.
Side effects can be physical and emotional. Feeling low or depressed during or after treatment is common. Talk to your doctor if you are feeling down. For help with managing depression or anxiety, see Emotions and Cancer, visit beyondblue.org.au or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.
Complementary therapies, such as meditation, yoga, massage or acupuncture, may improve the side effects of treatment. There is evidence showing that physical activity may also help manage the side effects of treatment for certain cancers.
Fatigue and tiredness
Cancer treatment and associated stress can make you feel very tired and worn out. Factors such as job stress, shif twork or standing for long periods may make you feel worse. Many people find that they cannot do as much as they normally would, but others are able to continue their usual activities.
Tips for managing fatigue
- Talk to your employer about adjusting your working hours so you can arrive later if you have trouble getting started in the morning or leave early if you feel tired in the afternoon.
- Plan meetings for the times you tend to have more energy.
- Discuss your priorities with your manager to ensure you save your energy for the most important tasks.
- Ask permission to take breaks when you need to. Bring a pillow to work and find a quiet place where you can rest. If this isn’t possible, get some fresh air or take a short walk.
- If you don’t have the energy for physical tasks (such as lifting or driving), ask colleagues for help.
- Work from home if you can and rest when you need to.
- Ask your employer if they can provide a parking space. Find out if you are eligible for a disability parking permit.
- Bring your lunch or ask a workmate to pick it up for you so you don’t have to go out.
- Try to save your energy for work; for example, ask for more help around the house or get your groceries delivered.
- Eat well and take care of your body. Regular exercise can help improve your mood or make you feel more energetic.
- Prioritise important or meaningful activities.
- Ask an occupational therapist or physiotherapist for ways to manage fatigue.
- Find out more about coping with fatigue.
Thinking and memory changes
Your job might require you to interact with others, solve problems and concentrate for long periods of time. After cancer treatment, it can be difficult to concentrate. You may feel like you are in a fog. This is called “cancer-related cognitive impairment”. Other terms used to describe this include “chemo brain”, “cancer fog” and “brain fog”.
It may be caused by the cancer or cancer treatments, and usually improves with time (it may help to explain this to an employer). Tell your doctor about any thinking or memory problems you have.
Tips for improving concentration
- Get plenty of sleep. Deep sleep is important for memory and concentration.
- Keep a diary or set reminders on your phone.
- Carry a small notepad or use your phone to jot down things to remember.
- Create to-do lists to help keep track of the things you need to achieve. Complete tasks one at a time rather than multi-tasking.
- Refer to project plans, meeting minutes and other documents to jog your memory.
- In a noisy office, try noise-cancelling headphones or headphones with rain sounds (and explain why you're doing this).
- Let your manager know you may need more time to finish tasks and discuss realistic deadlines.
- Plan to do things that need concentration when you are more alert.
- If possible, let calls go to voicemail and return them when you’ve had time to prepare your response.
- Talk to an occupational therapist about strategies to improve your memory and thinking, such as concentration, information processing, decision making and judgement.
- Find out more about changes in thinking and memory.
Nausea and vomiting
Nausea is best treated early. If you feel sick, talk to your doctor. You will probably be given anti-nausea medicine that you can take regularly to relieve symptoms. Finding the right one can take time. If you still have nausea or vomiting after using the prescribed medicine, let your doctor know so that another type can be tried.
Tips for managing nausea
- Take anti-nausea medicine before your treatment session.
- Sip on fluids throughout the day. If you don’t like water, drink flavoured water or tea. Peppermint, ginger or weak black tea can be soothing. You can also try sparkling water, lemonade or ginger ale.
- Avoid strong smells. Keep your distance if colleagues are eating strong-smelling food. If you work in the food, hairdressing or construction industries and are affected by strong smells, ask for other tasks.
- Chew gum or suck on ice cubes throughout the day.
- Try eating food with ginger, which can ease nausea.
- An empty stomach can make your nausea worse. Eat something before going to bed or soon after getting up in the morning, and eat small meals and snacks regularly. Try nibbling on plain crackers.
- Breathe deeply and gently through your mouth if you feel like you’re going to vomit, or go outside to get some fresh air.
- Keep a sick bag close to you or sit near the bathroom so you can get there quickly if you need to.
- Work from home or take leave if you feel too sick.
Increased risk of infections
Some cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, may increase your risk of getting an infection. Viruses such as colds, flu and COVID-19 in the workplace or on transport to and from work may be easier to catch and pose serious risks. Scratches or cuts may get infected more easily. It is important to stay away from people who are unwell.
Tips for lowering your risk of infection
- Let other staff know that you are more likely to get infections. Your employer can remind staff to stay at home when they are sick.
- If you work in an open-plan area, move to an office or an isolated desk during treatment and recovery.
- Wear a mask at work and on public transport.
- Work in a well-ventilated space and social distance.
- Keep your workspace clean, especially if you share a desk. Wipe down your phone, keyboard, desk and mouse regularly. If you use a company car, clean the steering wheel, handles and radio console.
- Arrange to have video or teleconferences instead of face-to-face meetings. Work from home if you can.
- Ask your doctor about flu and COVID-19 vaccines. Tell Human Resources (HR) or your manager if you think you have caught something at work for health and safety and insurance purposes.
- If possible, take time off if you work in hospitality, health care or child care, particularly if your immunity is lowered (for example, if you have a low white-blood-cell count).
- Wash your hands before eating and drinking, after taking public transport and using the bathroom.
- Clean and cover any wounds or injuries that occur at work to prevent infection. Report the incident to your HR department for work health and safety reasons.
Changes in how you look
Side effects from surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy may change the way you look. You may be distressed or embarrassed about these changes. You may also feel less confident about who you are and what you can do. It is normal to feel self-conscious when you return to work. Give yourself time to get used to any changes.
Tips for improving confidence
- Talk about the changes. If you don’t openly acknowledge that you look different, people may avoid you because they don’t know what to say.
- Consider asking your manager to raise the issue of your appearance with your co-workers if you feel uncomfortable talking about it.
- Be prepared for co-workers to ask questions.
- Answer questions directly or say that you would prefer not to discuss it.
- Set boundaries for any topics or questions that make you feel uncomfortable.
- Consider a wig, beanie, cap or scarf if you’ve lost your hair and feel uncomfortable being bald at work. Some state and territory Cancer Councils offer a free wig service – call 13 11 20 for more details.
- Consider contacting Look Good Feel Better, a free program to help you manage treatment-related changes in appearance. Call 1800 650 960.
“I did the Look Good Feel Better program before treatment. It helped me prepare mentally for losing my hair during chemotherapy.” – Ann
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.