Talking to your employer and colleagues

Talking about your cancer may be difficult, especially at work. Some people may worry that their employer will make them redundant or discriminate against them. However, it is important to know that people affected by cancer are protected against discrimination by the Equality Act 2010. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 protects people who live in Northern Ireland.

Talking to your employer can also help them to make changes that will support you during treatment. They can help and support you in a number of different ways. They may make work adjustments, give you time off and tell you about your sick pay entitlements.

You may also be wondering whether you want to tell colleagues, or what to say to them. You may worry about how they will react. But telling them can help them know what to expect, and support you.

Telling your employer about your cancer

Many people worry about telling their employer that they’ve been diagnosed with cancer and need to have treatment. You may worry that your employer won’t support you and that they may be prejudiced or discriminate against you.

Although it helps to tell your employer that you have cancer, you don’t have to do so by law. However, if you don’t tell your employer that you have cancer, and the cancer and its treatment affect your ability to do your job, this could cause problems.

Some people worry that their employer will sack them or find an excuse to make them redundant if they tell them they have cancer. However, employers shouldn’t do this. Anyone who has or has ever had cancer is protected by the Equality Act 2010 in England, Scotland and Wales, or the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in Northern Ireland. These acts make it unlawful for employers to discriminate against people with a disability.

Both acts state that employers should make reasonable adjustments to remove any substantial disadvantage to employees as a result of their condition. You may be able to suggest adjustments that could help support you.

Also, if your employer doesn’t know about your cancer and its effects, it will make it more difficult for them to make any necessary adjustments for you at work. In fact, in some cases, your employer’s lack of knowledge may mean they’re not legally required to make any adjustments.

To consider any reasonable adjustments, your employer may ask for your permission to write to your doctor or a medical professional to get their advice on what may help. Your employer can’t do this without your permission. You have the right to see any medical report before it’s sent to your employer, but you’ll need to ask if you want this to happen.

If your employer knows that you have cancer, they can help you by exploring any reasonable adjustments that can be made. They can also provide support and try to make sure you have time off if you need it, and that you get any sick pay you’re entitled to.

You can talk directly to your line manager, human resources manager, occupational health adviser or trade union, or to all four.

If carrying on as normal is important to you, tell your employer so that they can support you in continuing with your work. However, if you can’t go on working normally because of the cancer or its treatment, then let your employer know. Arrangements can then be made to alter your work or give you time off as necessary.

Asking your employer questions

Some questions you might like to ask your employer include:
  • Can I work out with you what we’ll tell everyone at work about my cancer and its effect on my work situation?
  • How can my job be adjusted so that I spend less time on tasks that cause me extra discomfort?
  • Where can I find information about any company/organisation policies that relate to my situation?

Telling your colleagues about cancer

Talking about cancer can be very difficult. You may worry about how your colleagues will react – for example, whether they might withdraw from you. Or you may worry that talking about the cancer might make things awkward for yourself or your colleagues.

Some people may avoid you because they don’t know what to say and are afraid of saying the wrong thing. You can help them by bringing up the subject and showing that you’re willing to talk about the cancer.

Telling your colleagues can help, as they then know what to expect. For example, if fatigue affects your moods or concentration, it gives them the opportunity to support you.

We have a section dedicated to talking about cancer. It contains tips to help you tell people about your disease. It also explores common reactions and people’s attitudes to cancer.

If you don’t want to tell colleagues

Some people prefer not to tell colleagues they have cancer. You may not want to tell them so that you can keep one area of your life as normal as possible. This is a good way of coping for some people.

However, sometimes the effects of the cancer or cancer treatment (for example, if your hair falls out), and the need to take time off, make it impossible not to tell your colleagues.

Your colleagues may also be aware from your behaviour that something’s wrong, and may feel uncomfortable if they don’t know what it is.

Risk to colleagues

There are many myths and misunderstandings about cancer. Some of your colleagues may worry that they can catch cancer. But cancer can’t be passed on like an infection, and the people you work with have no risk of catching cancer.

Some people may also worry that they could be harmed if you’re having treatments such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy. Again, there’s no risk to your colleagues. Chemotherapy is broken down in the body and can’t harm anyone you come into contact with. Radiotherapy treatment from an external machine doesn’t make you radioactive. Even if you’ve had internal radiotherapy, the radiation will only affect a small area of tissue in your body around the cancer and won’t affect anyone you come into contact with.

If you find it difficult to discuss these issues with your colleagues, you may find it helpful to talk in confidence to our cancer support specialists on 0808 808 00 00.

Back to Information for employees

Policies and resources

People affected by cancer may face challenges related to work. Macmillan can offer information and support

Working during treatment

Deciding whether to work during cancer treatment can be very difficult. It depends very much on individual circumstances.

Coping with side effects

Cancer treatment can cause different side effects. They can have an impact on your capacity to work.

Making treatment decisions

When you’re self-employed, you may have particular questions about treatment decisions and how they could impact on your work.