Key questions about cancer and work

Will I be able to work?

Most employed people who are diagnosed with cancer  wonder how it will affect their ability to work. Whether or  not you are able to work during treatment will depend on:

  • the type and stage of the cancer
  • the type of treatment you have and its side effects
  • the kind of work you do.

In many cases, cancer will impact an employee’s work life. For example, you will probably have treatment appointments, some of which may be scheduled during working hours.

Deciding whether to continue working will depend on how you feel during treatment. Ask your medical team what you might expect depending on the treatment you are having.

Your decision will also depend on the support and flexibility of your employer. Most people who want to continue
working during treatment are able to do so in some capacity. Some people manage by adjusting their work hours for a while – they may miss a couple of days here and there or work part time. Others choose to take a break or retire.

Each person’s situation is different – not everyone with the same type of cancer will make the same decision about
work. It’s best to do what feels right for you.

Should I tell my employer I have cancer?

Telling your employer that you have cancer is a personal decision. While there is no law that requires you to share the diagnosis with your employer, you do have some obligations.

You should tell your employer if the cancer or treatment will affect your ability to do the essential requirements of your job or if your illness could reasonably cause a health and safety risk for yourself or other people.

Being open with your employer enables you to discuss what adjustments could be made to your work. You might be able to access some benefits, such as additional leave, and your employer may be more understanding when it comes to flexible working arrangements. Other reasons to consider for disclosing your illness:

  • if your employer does not know about your diagnosis and your work is affected, it may be seen as poor work performance
  • you can work with your employer to deal with any misunderstandings
  • keeping it a secret causes unnecessary stress, and you may waste energy trying to cover it up.

If you are unsure of how your employer will react, it’s good to know your rights and your employer’s responsibilities. If you feel nervous about speaking with your manager or colleagues, you may feel more confident if you practise the conversation with your family and friends.

What should I tell my employer?

What and how much to tell your employer will depend on your preferences, your workplace and the kind of relationship you have with your employer.

You do not need to share all the details about your diagnosis and treatment with your employer. You only need to let your employer know about anything that may impact upon your ability to work or cause a health and safety risk for yourself or others.

You may want to provide the following information:

  • if and how long you will be able to continue working
  • whether you will be able to perform all of your job duties
  • if you want other people in your workplace to know
  • if you need to take time off from work for treatment and when you are likely to return to work
  • any work adjustments you may need.

You may need to talk with your health professionals before you can answer these questions, and you may not have some answers until you’ve started treatment.

  • Keep notes about how the conversation went and what was discussed.
  • Be prepared for your employer to bring up your working arrangements. For example, your manager may ask if you want a modified work schedule. If you aren’t sure what you want to do, say that you need time to consider your options.
  • Reassure your manager of your commitment to your job.
  • Refer your manager to our website to download the fact sheets for employers and workplaces, which include suggestions about talking to someone with cancer.

Should I tell my colleagues?

There is no wrong or right answer, it is a personal decision. Sharing details about the diagnosis and treatment may make you feel uncomfortable or you may not want to answer questions. You may be concerned you’ll be treated differently.

You can talk to your employer about whether or not you plan to tell your colleagues. Points to consider include:

  • if it’s a friendly and close-knit type of workplace or more formal and business-focused
  • the types of relationships you have with other staff
  • who you feel you can trust with personal matters
  • if there has been a previous diagnosis of cancer in the workplace and how it was received.

If the cancer or treatment side effects mean you will be away from work for some time or if they have a visible impact on your behaviour or appearance, your colleagues may speculate about these changes. Some may even become resentful if they think that you aren’t ‘pulling your weight’ and don’t understand why. It can be difficult to hide your illness if you work in a close-knit team. Sharing with close colleagues will give them the opportunity to express their concern for your wellbeing and discuss ways they can help you.

  • You don’t need to tell everyone, especially if you work in a large organisation. You may only want to talk to those closest to you.
  • If you want to tell your colleagues but feel uncomfortable doing it yourself, ask your manager, a close colleague or your human resources manager to pass on the news for you.
  • Find a comfortable and private place and time to talk.
  • Think about how you will handle the reactions of other people. Some colleagues might react with understanding, while others may feel uncomfortable. Planning ahead will help you cope with the different responses.
  • If you tell your colleagues, you may find that news about your diagnosis is spread through office conversations or gossip. People usually have good intentions, but they may not realise that this can make you uncomfortable. Talk to your colleagues if you are upset or ask your manager to get involved.

What are my rights regarding privacy and disclosure?

There is no law that requires you to tell your employer or colleagues that you have cancer. However, if you take paid personal leave because you are sick, your employer may require a medical certificate confirming that you’re unwell. The certificate doesn’t have to say you have cancer.

You’ll need to let your employer know if you are taking medications that may cause side effects, which affect your
work or safety at work.

Your employer needs your consent to tell others about your diagnosis unless it’s a health risk, in which case they may be able to disclose this information without your consent.

If you believe your health information has been shared without your consent, talk to your manager. The person who shared the information may be disciplined. You can seek advice from the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner in your state or territory if you are still unhappy.

Keep in mind that social media websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, are publicly accessible and any information there may be visible to your employer and colleagues.

What support can my employer offer me?

If you cannot perform your usual work duties, your employer is obligated by the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ unless it will result in ‘unjustifiable hardship’ to the organisation. These adjustments could be administrative, environmental or procedural, and they could be temporary or long-term.

You and your employer can discuss ideas for possible adjustments to your duties, work space and hours. Your health care team may also have useful suggestions. Reasonable adjustments that can be made include:

  • additional breaks because of pain or fatigue, or to attend medical appointments
  • temporary duties as agreed with employee and employer
  • reduction of hours, flexi-time, working from home, part-time work or a gradual return to work
  • changes to the workplace such as access to chairs, desks and counters
  • telephone typewriter (TTY) access, voice-activated software, telephone headsets, screen-reading software.

Your employer can access advice, and financial and practical assistance to help support you at JobAccess. Call 1800 464 800 or go to

They may also have employee support systems, such as rehabilitation and retraining programs, or an Employee Assistance Program that offers free counselling. Another option may be a buddy or mentoring system with someone else in your workplace who has had cancer. Your colleague can offer advice or help you liaise with management. The way that the system is arranged is up to you and your employer.

Am I entitled to compensation if my cancer is work-related?

About 5000 people are diagnosed with work-related cancer each year. Substances known to cause cancer include asbestos, coal tar pitch, wood dust and benzene. Radiation exposure can also cause cancer.

People who are diagnosed with a work-related cancer may be entitled to compensation. Contact an experienced solicitor or the Cancer Council’s Legal Referral Service. It is not available in all states and territories, call 13 11 20 to enquire.

This information was last reviewed in January 2014
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