Self-employment and cancer

Many Australians run their own business or work as a freelancer, contractor, farmer or entrepreneur. They may be a sole trader or employ other people.

Making a decision about working

A major concern when you are diagnosed with cancer may be how, and if, you can keep your business running. 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 and allow you to manage the time needed for treatment or recovery.

The decisions you make will depend on your individual circumstances. The type of cancer, 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. You could also seek professional financial advice. Your options may include:

  • checking existing insurance policies for entitlements, including any benefits payable through your superannuation
  • claiming early entitlements from your superannuation fund
  • talking to Centrelink about government benefits
  • selling your business.

Managing your business

To keep your business running, you may need a business plan to manage the changes caused by treatment. 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:

  • Be realistic about how much work you can continue to do.
  • Decide what has to be done now and what can be left until later.
  • Use your energy to do the tasks that you enjoy the most 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 any staff know what changes you are making to keep the business running.
  • Aim to finish any high-priority 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 the internet instead of meeting face-to-face? If you ship merchandise, 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 for more information.

Telling clients about the cancer

You do not have to disclose the cancer to your clients. Your instinct might be to hide the news of your diagnosis, but if you want to talk about it, you should decide who to tell, what to say and 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, confirm your working hours and advise the best way to contact you (e.g. during treatment you may suggest 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 disclose the cancer to your employees. If you decide to let your employees know, you will need to consider what to tell them and whether it will impact on morale if you don’t tell them but they find out anyway.

It is natural for your employees to be concerned about the impact of your diagnosis and treatment on their future. 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.

Consult a financial or business adviser

This professional can help you assess your financial position and come up with strategies about how to manage your situation. To find a business adviser in your area, see The Association of Financial Advisers also provides a ‘ Find an adviser’ service.

Consult a financial counsellor

A financial counsellor can help if you are suffering financial hardship. To find a counsellor, see or contact 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. Even if you have not contributed regularly to the fund, you may be able to claim on insurance policies.

Contact Centrelink

You may be eligible for benefits or pensions. There are different types of income support payments for people in financial hardship, including benefits for farmers. Call 132 717 or visit

"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

Key points

  • Loss of income can be a major concern for self-employed people with cancer.
  • Creating a plan may help you manage your business. Consider the possible impact of your treatment and side effects; the nature of your job; and how much support you may receive from friends, family and subcontractors.
  • Try to be realistic about your health and what you will be able to do.
  • Setting priorities about essential work, hiring temporary staff and changing your usual ways of working can help keep your business running during treatment.
  • If your usual working patterns change, you may wish to advise clients that you are dealing with a family or health issue. Let them know the best way to contact you.
  • You don’t have to tell clients about the cancer. If you decide to share news of your diagnosis, 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 the changes to the business while you are undergoing treatment.
  • For many self-employed people, it is difficult to take unpaid time off. Consult a financial or business adviser, claim on insurance policies, check your superannuation fund, or contact Centrelink to get financial support and advice.

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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