Key questions about cancer and work

The way that cancer and its treatment will affect your ability to work will depend on your individual circumstances. Our answers to common questions may give you a clearer picture of how to manage your working life after a cancer diagnosis.

Will I be able to work?

Most employed people who are diagnosed with cancer wonder how it will affect their ability to work. In many cases, cancer will affect an employee’s work life. For example, some of your treatment appointments will probably be scheduled during working hours. Whether you are able to work during treatment will depend on:

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

Discuss the demands of your job with your medical team and ask them how much time off you are likely to need, or whether you will be able to work throughout your treatment and recovery. See Coping with side effects for more information on the side effects you may experience.

Your decision will also depend on the support and flexibility of your employer. Most people who want to continue to work 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

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 must tell your employer about anything that will affect your ability to do the essential requirements of your job, or could reasonably cause a health and safety risk for yourself or other people (e.g. if side effects of medicines you are taking may affect your ability or safety at work).

You may decide to only tell your employer if the cancer starts to affect your ability to do your job. Or you may decide to inform them right away so that you can jointly come up with a plan to deal with the impacts on you and your workplace.

Keeping the diagnosis a secret may cause you unnecessary stress trying to cover it up. Being open with your employer may:

  • enable you to discuss the support you need and any adjustments that could be made to your work 
  • help you find out about any benefits you can access, such as additional leave
  • make it easier to organise flexible working arrangements
  • reduce the risk that any impacts on your work will be seen as poor work performance.
Keep in mind that information you share on social media websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, is publicly accessible and may be visible to your employer and colleagues.

What are my rights regarding privacy and disclosure?

Your employer needs your consent to tell others about your illness and treatment unless it’s a serious health risk to others, in which case they may be able to disclose this information without your consent (but only to the extent necessary to reduce the risk).

If you believe your health information has been shared without your consent, talk to your employer. The person who shared the information may be disciplined. You can seek advice from the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.

If you take paid personal leave because you are sick, your employer may require a medical certificate confirming you’re unwell. The certificate doesn’t have to say you have cancer.

What should I tell my employer?

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

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 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 medical team before you can answer these questions, and you may not have some answers until you’ve started treatment. Remember that you do not need to share all the details of your diagnosis and treatment with your employer.

You only need to tell them about anything that may impact upon your ability to work or cause a health and safety risk for yourself or others.

Talking to your employer

  • You may feel more confident if you practise the conversation with your family and friends.
  • Consider taking a support person with you to assist with the discussion.
  • Decide beforehand how much information you want to share.
  • Request a meeting in a quiet, private place where you won’t be interrupted. Allow plenty of time for your discussion.
  • Come to the meeting with some ideas about your needs and how any impact on the workplace can be dealt with.
  • Be prepared for your employer to bring up your working arrangements, e.g. they may ask if you want a modified
    work schedule. If you don’t know, say that you need time to consider your options.
  • Reassure your manager of your commitment to your job.
  • Keep notes about the discussion. Write down any agreed changes to your working arrangements for you and your manager to sign.
  • Don’t feel that you have to agree on everything in the first meeting. You may both need to get more information.
  • Refer your manager to Cancer Council’s online Workplace Fact Sheets for employers and workplaces or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.

Should I tell my colleagues?

There is no wrong or right answer – it is a personal decision that depends on your individual circumstances. 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:

  • the types of relationships you have with other staff
  • whether your workplace is collaborative, friendly and nurturing, or distrustful and negative
  • who you feel you can trust with personal matters
  • impact on team morale and cohesion if you tell some team members and not others
  • how any previous disclosure of cancer or other serious illness in the workplace was received
  • whether your colleagues need to know what to do if you have an emergency at work.

It can be difficult to hide your illness if you work in a closeknit team. 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.

Sharing with close colleagues provides them with an opportunity to express their concern for your wellbeing and discuss ways they can help you.

Talking to your colleagues

  • You don’t need to tell everyone, especially if you work in a large organisation. You may only want to inform your immediate team members or close colleagues.
  • Decide beforehand how much information you want to share.
  • Find a comfortable and private place, and set aside time to talk.
  • Think about how you will handle the different reactions.
  • Some colleagues might react with understanding, others may feel uncomfortable or afraid. Planning ahead will help you cope with the different responses.
  • Let your colleagues know about the kind of support and help you need, and how this may change over time.
  • If you feel uncomfortable about telling your colleagues yourself, ask your manager, a close colleague or the human resources manager to pass on the news for you.
  • You may find that news about your diagnosis spreads throughout the office. Let your colleagues know upfront if you would prefer the news to be kept confidential. If you are upset, talk to your colleagues or ask your manager to get involved.

Can my employer sack me because I have cancer?

Discrimination in the workplace due to cancer and treatment is unlawful. This includes stopping you taking leave, offering you a more junior role or sacking you, for a reason related to your cancer. If you are unsure of how your employer will react, it’s good to know your rights and your employer’s responsibilities.

How can my employer support me?

Under law, cancer is considered a disability. If you cannot perform your usual work duties, your employer is obligated by the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992 to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ so you can continue to work, unless it will result in ‘unjustifiable hardship’ to the organisation. These adjustments could be to your duties, workspace or hours, and they could be temporary or long-term.

For more information on protections for workers under anti-discrimination laws see Workplace rights.

You and your employer can discuss ideas for possible adjustments. Your health care team may also have useful suggestions. Reasonable adjustments could include:

  • additional breaks because of pain or fatigue, or to attend medical appointments
  • temporary duties as agreed, reduced hours, flexitime, working from home, part‑time work or a gradual return to work
  • changes to the workspace such as access to chairs, desks and counters
  • providing voice-activated software, telephone headsets, or screen-reading software
  • setting you up to use the National Relay Service on your computer, a tablet, mobile phone or telephone typewriter (TTY).

Your employer can get advice, financial support and practical assistance to help support you from JobAccess, an Australian Government service. 

The Employment Assistance Fund, administered by JobAccess, provides financial assistance to employers for work-related equipment, modifications and services for employees with disability.

Many employers also have employee support systems, such as rehabilitation and retraining programs, or an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) 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 any 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, diesel engine exhaust, lead and benzene. Radiation exposure (including from the sun) can also cause cancer.

If you have been diagnosed with a work-related cancer, you may be entitled to compensation. It’s important to obtain legal advice from a lawyer who specialises in workers compensation matters.

To find a lawyer, contact the Law Society of New South Wales. For more information, call 13 11 20.

Click on the icon below to download a PDF booklet on cancer, work and you

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This information was last reviewed in January 2017
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