Work after cancer treatment
After treatment some people expect to get back to the way life was before and go back to work straight away. You may find that family and friends expect this as well.
However, some people can feel tired for a year or more after their treatment. You may have other physical changes or effects of treatment that you’re still dealing with and you’re also likely to feel emotionally exhausted.
It’s important to look after yourself and not push yourself or pretend (to yourself or others) that you’re fine when you’re not. You may want to take a few months after treatment to adjust to all that has happened and to think about what you want.
Some people can’t wait to go back to work. Other people need to start working again as soon as possible for financial reasons. Some people decide that their priorities have changed and they want to do a different kind of job, or they may decide to stop working altogether.
For most people, returning to work is a big step in their recovery. It helps to distract them from worrying about their health, and brings structure and security back into their life.
Some people who go back to work after cancer can feel disappointed and isolated when colleagues behave as if nothing has happened and do not even mention their illness. This is usually because they’re embarrassed or not sure of what to say rather than that they don’t care.
You may find our section on talking about your cancer helpful.
Some employers, who want to help you, might suggest lighter duties or early retirement because they genuinely think it will be what you want. If it is not what you want, you should feel free to say so.
Occupational health service
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Many companies have an occupational health service for their employees, which can offer support in various ways to people returning to work. Some are able to rearrange work times to avoid stressful times such as rush hours.
Sometimes part-time work can be arranged at first, to ease you back into your job. Occupational health departments may also offer counselling, both before and after your return to work, which is completely confidential.
If you can no longer do your job
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An employer who believes that a person’s absence from, or irregular attendance at, work is having a negative effect on the organisation, can dismiss that person if the employee is not capable of doing the work for which they are employed.
However, everyone with cancer is classed as disabled under the Equality Act , or the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) in Northern Ireland, and is therefore protected by these Acts. An employer can’t discriminate against you because you’ve had cancer.
The employer has a duty to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to workplaces and working practices to make sure that people with a disability are not at a disadvantage compared to other people. An example of a reasonable adjustment might include:
allowing some flexibility in working hours
allowing extra breaks to help an employee cope with fatigue
temporarily allowing the employee to be restricted to ‘light duties’
allowing working from home
allowing ‘phased (gradual) return’ to work after extended sick leave.
If you’re worried that you might lose your rights to a full-time job, contact your human resources manager, your local Citizens Advice Bureau or Law Centre.
If you gave up your job and want to work again, you may wonder whether you have to tell prospective employers that you have or have had cancer. Under the Equality Act, employers can't refuse to offer a person a job solely because that person has had cancer. People who live in Northern Ireland are protected by the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) – download our working through cancer information [PDF file, 267kb].
Under the Equality Act, employers can no longer ask questions about a candidate’s health during the recruitment process. However, an employer can ask you about your medical circumstances after they have offered you a job.
If you are asked directly whether you have a health condition, it’s advisable to reply that you’re confident you are able to carry out the job and will be happy to discuss your health with the employer if you are offered the position. You can tell them that this is a legal requirement under the Equality Act.
It’s important that you don’t mislead an employer or potential employer. If you give false or incomplete information and it’s found out at a later stage, this could put you in a difficult position.
Like any other candidate, you will need to prepare truthful answers that emphasise your ability to do the job you have applied for. It can help to think about your previous jobs, your achievements and your experience, so that you can present those in the most positive way.
You are still the same person, and there is no reason why you should be any less efficient. It may help to chat to your doctor to make sure that they feel you are fit for the new job.
Your local Citizens Advice Bureau or the Equality and Human Rights Commission can also give you information about your employment rights.
If you go back to work and then realise within a few weeks that you have made a mistake, you should be able to claim benefits again if you need to. However, it is more difficult to claim benefit again if you have been back at work for more than eight weeks.