Making decisions about working

When you are diagnosed with cancer and throughout treatment, you may feel overwhelmed by all the decisions you have to make. Weighing up whether to continue working, have a break or retire may be difficult.

This section discusses the options you have and the factors you may consider when making a decision (see lists below). Try to avoid feeling rushed. Although things may seem to be happening quickly, there is usually time to make an informed decision.

If you are having trouble deciding what is important to you, make a list of reasons for and against. If you are overwhelmed, it may help to talk to family, friends or a counsellor to clarify what you want. You may also want to seek input from your doctors.

Reasons to work

Some people need to keep working for financial reasons, but work can also:

  • be enjoyable, stimulating and rewarding
  • give you a chance to socialise and decrease your sense of isolation
  • help you maintain a sense of identity
  • develop your skills, creativity and knowledge
  • keep you busy and get you out of the house
  • keep you in contact with friends and colleagues who can offer regular support
  • provide a purpose and feeling of accomplishment
  • provide a routine, which is important to some people.

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.

You and your employer should discuss whether your current role needs to be modified or if flexible working arrangements will help to accommodate your treatment and side effects. See information and tips about working while coping with side effects from treatment. See also returning to work.

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 physically and emotionally overwhelming. Discuss your leave options with your employer. You can use paid leave entitlements or ask for unpaid time off. If you do 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 was a little ambivalent about going back to work. Working is a normal part of life – it gives me identity. That, for me, was a compelling reason to return." – Jane
What to consider when making a decision about working
  • What type of treatment will you have?
  • Are there other treatments that would still be effective but might make it easier to combine work and treatment?
  • How often will you have treatment?
  • Does your treatment schedule suit your working hours? If not, can it be adjusted?
  • What are the potential side effects and how might they affect your job?
  • Will the side effects be temporary or long-term?
  • Does your medical team have any advice about how other patients manage treatment and work?
  • Would it be helpful 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.
  • How much does your wage or salary contribute to your family’s total income?
  • Do you have any personal leave, annual leave or long service 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?
  • 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, can you anticipate?
  • 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?
  • Have you discussed your situation with your manager or human resources department?
  • Is your manager supportive and is your workplace able to 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?
  • Do other staff members depend on you or do you work independently?
  • Are there any aspects of your personal life that you also have to consider, such as children or other financial dependents?
  • Do you have any other caring responsibilities (such as elderly parents or other relatives needing care)?
  • Will your family and friends be able to provide practical and emotional support? E.g. transporting you to appointments, helping around the house or providing meals.
  • Will working give you a sense of normality or take your mind off cancer?
  • Will the emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis make it hard for you to concentrate on work?
Check your insurance

If you have disability or income protection insurance (either independently or through your superannuation fund), you may be able to receive a portion of your income while you are unable to work. If you are thinking of resigning from your job, check your insurance coverage first, because leaving work may affect your entitlements.

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


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.

Most people take time to adjust to retirement, and making plans for dealing with the impact on your sense of self, finances and relationships can make the transition easier. Some people find it helpful to get involved with volunteer work as part of their transition to retirement. You may find it helps to talk about these responses with your friends and family, a hospital social worker, spiritual leader or counsellor, or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.

Key points

  • After a cancer diagnosis, it can be difficult to decide if you want to continue working, adjust your working hours, take a break or retire.
  • It may help to make a list of advantages and disadvantages about your options, or to talk these over with someone you trust.
  • Employment may not only be a source of income. A job can also provide opportunities for social interaction, creativity, learning and travel. Working may make you feel like you are contributing to society.
  • Sharing the information that you have been diagnosed with cancer with your employer may allow you to access flexible working arrangements that accommodate your treatment and side effects.
  • You will have to consider several factors, including the nature of your job, treatment side effects, the flexibility of your workplace, your leave entitlements and personal matters (such as finances and how much support you have from family and friends).
  • You may be able to take some time off work.
  • Some people decide to retire. It is normal to have mixed feelings about retirement, depending on your age and what your plans were before the cancer diagnosis.
  • Check whether you hold any relevant insurance policies that may be able to provide an income.
  • Avoid making a hasty decision. Talk to family or friends and seek professional financial advice before making a decision.

Expert content reviewers:

Carolyn Butcher, Chief People and Development Officer, Thomson Geer, VIC; Karen Hall, Clinical Nurse, Cancer Services Division, Flinders Medical Centre, SA; Deborah Lawson, Legal Policy Advisor, McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer, VIC; Phil Mendoza- Jones, Consumer; Jeanne Potts, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council VIC; Helen Tayler, Social Worker and Counsellor, Cancer Counselling Service, Belconnen Community Health Centre, ACT.

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