It’s natural to feel nervous if you’re returning to work after you’ve been away for a while, after treatment ends, or once you feel you can manage work and your ongoing treatment. If you are returning to an existing job, you may want to talk to your employer about a return-to-work plan.
You may seek a new job because of changes to your capabilities or priorities. Cancer Council can provide you with information about the emotional and practical aspects of living well after cancer – see Living Well After Cancer or call 13 11 20.
Going back to work
You may be concerned about how your employer and co-workers will react, and if there will be questions about your ability to perform your usual role. You may consider returning to work gradually, increasing your hours and duties as you become stronger, or you may feel ready to resume your old workload right away.
All employers are legally required to make changes (known as reasonable adjustments) to accommodate the effects of an employee’s cancer diagnosis – see workplace rights. This may mean, for example, that your employer allows you to return to work in stages, is flexible with start and finish times, gives you time off to attend medical appointments or provides ergonomic work tools.
It’s a good idea to speak with your general practitioner (GP), cancer specialist or an occupational physician about whether you are able to undertake your usual tasks. They may ask for an assessment of your function by an occupational therapist to help make a decision. Your employer can request a medical examination to show you are fit for work or to identify any changes they need to make to accommodate your needs. However, they don’t have the right to request full unrestricted access to your medical records.
Read Kristin’s story
“I’ve been employed with a Commonwealth Government department since 1995.
“When I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, I told my boss I’d be taking extended time off and wrapped up some work before taking six weeks of sick leave.
“My employer connected me with a workplace rehabilitation consultant who helped create a return-to-work plan for me. The consultant spoke to my doctors and manager and determined my working hours and tasks.
“Because I was having several months of chemotherapy, I started working from home for four hours once a week. Over a year, my hours increased and I worked at home and in the office. If I worked more time than planned, my employer would re-credit my sick leave.
“Having a written plan was a safety net for me. Each month I would forecast the amount of work I thought I could handle. When I felt I should be working more or was anxious about people’s expectations, I knew I could stick to the approved plan and return at my own pace.
“Being back to full-time work is a juggling act because I’m still fatigued and have a lot of appointments, including for my clinical trial. I also have work-related stress – I’ve lost some corporate knowledge because I was out of the loop for a year.
“I’m enjoying being back at work. I know I’m very lucky to have a supportive employer.
“I hope employees know that they can ask for support from their employer – especially a written return-to-work plan. The support from my employer helped me to keep engaged and get back to work when I was able.”
Tell your cancer story.
If you are unable to carry out your previous role, your employer may offer a rehabilitation scheme to train you for another role. Your employer is only required to offer you a different role if the cancer is work-related.
Work Assist is a free government service for people in danger of losing their job because of illness, injury or disability. Call 1800 464 800 for more information. If you have life insurance or income protection insurance, check if it includes rehabilitation cover to help you return to work.
"At the time of the diagnosis, I was working as an office manager, but afterwards we reassessed our life. I changed jobs and we moved house. I now work in aged care, which I love." – Jodie
A cancer diagnosis may make you reconsider your career goals and work values. For some people, returning to the same job may not be possible due to changes in ability or the length of time away. The desire to reduce work-related stress or seek more meaningful work may also be a motivating factor to change jobs.
Making a return to work plan
When you are ready to return to work, contact your employer about preparing a return to work plan. This is a helpful document prepared by you, your doctor and your employer (or a rehabilitation professional) outlining your approach to returning to work. It may also be helpful to develop a similar plan if you keep working during treatment.
The plan is tailored to your specific situation and health needs, is reviewed regularly, and may include:
- your job title and location
- approximate date of return to work
- time period of the plan
- your goals and abilities
- a summary of duties
- start, finish and break times
- any specific restrictions or recommendations from your health care team (such as time limits for sitting or that you must wear a lymphoedema sleeve)
- any short-term changes to your terms of employment (such as leave, wages) as a result of your rehabilitation
- any training needs that could help you
- any potential triggers within your role that could create additional stress, harm or prevent your recovery
- details of the supervisors or managers responsible for monitoring progress of the return-to-work plan
- dates of regular meetings to discuss progress and adjustments to the plan if needed.
To see a sample return to work plan, download the Job Seeking Workbook produced by Cancer Council New South Wales.
To find out more, see the Australian Government’s JobAccess website. Your state or territory WorkSafe or workers compensation authority website also offers information and advice about workplace safety, workers compensation, worker assistance programs and returning to work:
Preparing for an interview
- Consider seeing a career counsellor or social worker to practise some job interviews. They can help you identify your strengths, skills and abilities.
- Think about what you may say if asked about a gap in your résumé (CV). Some people write “career break” rather than leave the gap unexplained.
- Keep explanations general and straightforward – don’t make up a longwinded story. You might want to say that you took some time off for personal reasons.
If you are asked a direct question about your health history, consider answering: “I had a health or family issue, but it’s resolved now”, “I have no health problems that would affect me performing this job” or “I have medical clearance to perform this type of work”.
- If you have an obvious physical impairment, consider letting the interview panel know how you are able to perform the specific job responsibilities.
- It is illegal to ask any question that may be seen as discriminatory, including about someone's health. But an employer can ask if there are any support or accessibility needs they would have to meet to support you in the role.
- Being up-front with your employer can make it easier to negotiate any necessary modifications to the workplace or time off for medical appointments.
- If you don’t get the job and you believe it is because of the cancer diagnosis and treatment, you can complain to the employer, the discrimination agency in your state or territory, the Australian Human Rights Commission or the Fair Work Ombudsman (see getting help and support for contact details). However, these types of complaints are often unsuccessful as it’s hard to prove why you weren’t hired.
Finding a new job
Before looking for a new position, you may want to consider these questions:
- Does my illness mean I need to look for a new line of work?
- What abilities, skills and experience can I offer a new employer?
- Will I need to update my skills or education?
- Is there a market for someone with my skills in my chosen field?
- Would I be happy with a lower-level position or fewer hours?
- Can I afford to live on a lower salary?
- How would I manage the stress of a change in employment?
- Does my confidence need a boost?
- Will I need more support (such as new equipment or extra breaks)?
- How many hours a week am I able to work?
- Will I be able to tell a potential or new employer about my cancer treatment?
You may also want to consider different ways of working, such as job- sharing, volunteering, self-employment, part-time or agency work. Discuss your options with colleagues and referees who are familiar with your work and can be honest about your skills. You could also talk with a career counsellor, Cancer Council’s Legal, Financial and Workplace Referral Services on 13 11 20 or a JobAccess adviser on 1800 464 800.
Telling a potential employer
While you may want to tell a potential employer that you have had cancer, you don’t need to unless it may affect your ability to do the job. You only need to let a prospective employer know about:
- anything that may affect your ability to perform tasks that are an essential part of the job (for example, if you can lift heavy boxes or drive a car)
- any health and safety risks for yourself or others
- any adjustments you may need to help you do your job, such as an ergonomic chair or height-adjustable desk.
There will probably be a gap in your résumé (CV) if you did not work during cancer treatment. Be prepared for a potential employer to bring this up. It’s common for people to have breaks in their employment history because of travel, having children or other personal reasons, so the employer may not ask about it. Your employer does not need to know details about your personal life unless it is relevant to the job.
If you are unable to return to your previous job after treatment, you may:
- be able to attend a rehabilitation or retraining program to prepare you for another job
- be eligible for a payout if you have disability insurance or income protection insurance
- consider retiring
- contact Centrelink on 132 717 or visit the Department of Human Services to see if you are eligible for the Disability Support Pension or other payment.
- It’s natural to feel nervous about returning to work after treatment for cancer.
- Seek advice from your doctor about whether you are ready to return to work and able to carry out your usual tasks.
- A written return-to-work plan can be a helpful guide for you and your employer.
- Talk to your employer about returning to work part-time or on lighter duties. As your health improves, you may want to ease back into your previous routine.
- Let your employer know about any workplace adjustments you may need to help you carry out the inherent requirements of your job.
- Seek advice from a rehabilitation health professional such as an occupational therapist or physiotherapist to build up your functional endurance. Your employer must keep this information confidential.
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.