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Cancer, work and you

Workplace rights

Many people worry that they will face discrimination if they tell their employer they have cancer. Others fear being dismissed because they need time off work for treatment or to care for someone with cancer. While many employers and co-workers are caring and supportive, discrimination in the workplace can occur. Knowing your rights and responsibilities may help reassure you that you are being treated fairly.

Concerns about discrimination

Being discriminated against at work because you have cancer is against the law under the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and Fair Work Act 2009, as well as state and territory legislation. Cancer is considered a disability under these laws. Discrimination may occur in different ways.

Direct discrimination

This is when you are treated less fairly because of your cancer than someone without cancer. For example, an employer denies you a promotion, demotes you to a lower-paid job, refuses to hire you or dismisses you for a reason related to having cancer,  when they would not have done these things to an employee who does not have cancer.

Indirect discrimination

This is when a policy, rule or practice that seems fair actually disadvantages people who can’t follow it because they have cancer. For example, a requirement for staff to stand while serving customers might indirectly discriminate against you if the cancer prevents you from standing comfortably. The employer may be able to adjust the rule; however, it won’t be unlawful if it is reasonable in all the circumstances.

Australian law requires your employer to make changes ( reasonable adjustments) to help people with cancer do their job. Your employer can refuse to make these changes only if they would cause unjustifiable hardship to the business, on other reasonable business grounds, or if you still couldn't perform the essential parts of your job.

Harassment and bullying

It's against your rights to be harassed or bullied by managers, staff or clients because you have cancer or are caring for someone with cancer. Anti-bullying laws protect employees from repeated unreasonable behaviour that creates a risk to their health and safety. This could include unreasonable work demands, offensive comments, intimidation or exclusion.

People often have different ideas about what is unacceptable behaviour. Even though someone did not mean to be offensive does not mean that it is okay. You should seek advice if you feel you’ve been bullied or harassed.
Seek professional advice

This section discusses the law that applies to most employees in Australia under the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and Fair Work Act 2009. The law that applies to you depends on the organisation you work for, your employment status and whether there is any applicable state or territory legislation. Your award or enterprise agreement may provide additional entitlements. You should obtain specific advice about your situation from a lawyer who specialises in employment matters. If you cannot afford professional advice, Cancer Council’s Legal, Financial and Workplace Referral Services may be able to assist. Contact 13 11 20 for more information.

Resolving a workplace issue

  1. Try talking with your employer and follow your workplace’s policy for handling grievances or complaints. If your employer does not have a policy to follow, complain to your manager or human resources department about how you’ve been treated.
  2. Keep notes with dates and names of people who saw what happened. This will help you remember what happened so you can explain it later. It can help to take a support person to any meetings about the issue, and ask them to take notes.
  3. Most complaints are resolved through mediation or conciliation. This is an informal way of agreeing on an outcome. If mediation or conciliation doesn’t work, you may go to an administrative tribunal or to court for a legal judgment that must be followed.
  4. The Fair Work Ombudsman provides information about workplace rights and how to resolve workplace issues. If you’re still employed and reasonably believe you’ve been bullied, you can apply to the Fair Work Commission for an order to stop the bullying.
  5. If you think you’re being discriminated against, you can lodge a complaint with the discrimination agency in your state or territory, the Australian Human Rights Commission or the Fair Work Ombudsman. Or make a discrimination complaint under a "general protections" claim to the Fair Work Commission. Contact these organisations or seek legal advice to see which one is best for your situation before you lodge a complaint.
  6. If you have been dismissed from your job or experienced other disadvantage due to your cancer diagnosis, you may be able to lodge an unfair dismissal or adverse action application with the Fair Work Commission. You must lodge these types of claims within 21 days of being dismissed from your job.

Caring for someone with cancer

It is against the law for your employer to discriminate against you (treat you unfairly or less favourably) because of your caring responsibilities. It is also illegal to deny you opportunities, intimidate or harass you, or terminate your employment because you are caring for someone with cancer.

If you ask for flexible working arrangements because of your carer’s duties, your employer must consider your request. They can refuse your request on reasonable business grounds only – see information for working carers.

Unfair dismissal

An employer can’t pressure you to resign or dismiss you because you have cancer or are caring for a family or household member diagnosed with cancer.

All permanent employees are entitled to receive paid personal leave, which includes sick leave and carer’s leave. In general it is against the law to dismiss someone in these cases:

  • taking paid personal leave (even if they are away for a long time)
  • taking unpaid, or a combination of paid and unpaid, personal leave of up to three months within a 12-month period.

If you think your employment was ended unfairly, this may be unfair dismissal. You have 21 days from the date of dismissal to lodge a complaint with the Fair Work Commission. You must also meet some other conditions to be eligible to lodge an unfair dismissal claim, including a minimum length of service.

Key points


  • Under Australian law, cancer is considered to be a disability.
  • It is illegal for an employer to harass you, bully you, discriminate against you, deny you opportunities, pressure you to resign or dismiss you because you have cancer or are caring for someone with cancer.
  • Employers must make reasonable changes to accommodate the effects of an employee’s cancer or caring responsibilities, as long as these do not cause them unjustifiable hardship. Changes may be denied in some cases on reasonable business grounds, or if you would be unable to do the essential parts of the job even if changes were made.
  • It is generally against the law to dismiss someone for taking paid leave for illness or caring responsibilities.


  • If you feel you’ve been treated unfairly, talk to your manager or human resources department. Most complaints are resolved through mediation or conciliation.
  • If you think you’ve been discriminated against because you have cancer or are caring for someone with cancer, you may make a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission or your state or territory anti-discrimination agency, the Fair Work Ombudsman or the Fair Work Commission in your state or territory.
  • If you think you’ve been unfairly dismissed, you can lodge a complaint with the Fair Work Commission.
  • It is unlawful for your employer to treat you unfairly or threaten you because you have made a complaint about discrimination or harassment at work, or lodged an unfair dismissal claim.


Cancer, Work and You

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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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