Working during treatment

You may need to keep working for financial reasons or may not want to take a step back from your business. Working may help you focus your attention on something else. However, your ability to work will depend on your health, the type of treatment you have and what your work entails.

Cancer treatment may cause side effects that affect your ability to carry out your occupation.

  • Fatigue and extreme tiredness could have an impact on your capacity to do your work or deal with customers.
  • Chemotherapy can cause a drop in your white blood cells count. This may put you at risk of getting an infection.
  • Some chemotherapy drugs can cause numbness or pins and needles in the hands and feet. This can affect your ability to hold things or type and write.
  • Treatment can affect the way you look. You may have skin changes, weight changes, hair loss or scars. This may be difficult to cope with if you work face-to-face with clients.

Your doctors can give you medicines to relieve symptoms. It’s also important to think of a back-up plan for your business in case there are times when you can’t work.

Working during treatment

It may be difficult to decide whether or not you work during your treatment. It depends very much on your individual circumstances. You may need the income, or you may be reluctant to take a step back from the business after all the work you have put into it.

You may also find that working during your treatment gives you satisfaction and helps you to focus on something other than the cancer. It depends on the type of work you do and whether you have anyone else who can help out for a while.

It also depends on the type of cancer you have and what kind of treatment you decide on.

It’s impossible to say how you’ll react to treatment until you start. This uncertainty makes it hard to look ahead and decide how much work to take on. It’s sensible to reduce some of your workload if you can, and to have a back-up plan for your business in case you find treatment more difficult than you had expected.

You might decide to give up work altogether. There’s more information about this in our section giving up work temporarily or permanently.

You may be able to find ways to allow for your treatment needs while keeping your business going. When you’re thinking about whether to work while having treatment, ask yourself some questions:

  • Can I cut back on my workload temporarily?
  • Can I work in a different way, to allow time for rest as well as my treatment?
  • Can I pay someone else to do my work and still make a profit from it?
  • Where can I get extra financial help to get my business and my family through this period?
  • Is it safe for me and for others if I carry on working during treatment?
  • Have I informed my insurers to check I’m still covered?

It may help to talk these questions over with someone who knows you well and understands the work you do. Then you can plan the best course of action for you. It’s a good idea to run your business decisions past another person, especially if you’re feeling unwell, tired or upset.

Risk of infection

Some cancer treatments, particularly chemotherapy, can reduce the production of white blood cells, which fight infection. If your white blood cell count is very low, you’re more likely to get an infection. Your doctor or nurse will tell you if your white blood cell count is low.

It’s also a good idea to avoid people who have sore throats, colds, flu, diarrhoea and vomiting, or other kinds of infection, such as chicken pox.

If you come into contact with anyone who has an obvious infection, it’s best to ask your hospital doctor or specialist nurse for advice as soon as possible. You may need to take medicines to prevent you from getting an infection.

It’s a good idea to get some gentle exercise and fresh air during or after cancer treatment, but it’s important to avoid crowds where possible. This includes trying to avoid using public transport, especially during rush hour, and avoiding crowded workplaces where you may be mixing with people who may have an infection.

If you need to have dental work done during your chemotherapy treatment, it’s important to discuss this with your cancer specialist. There will be times during your chemotherapy when you will be at more risk of bleeding and infection in the mouth, so the timing of any dental work needs to be planned very carefully.

For more advice you can watch our slideshow with tips for avoiding infection when you have reduced immunity.

Numbness or tingling in the hands and feet

Some chemotherapy drugs affect the nerves in the hands and feet. Your hands and feet may be more sensitive than usual, and you may have pins and needles or numbness. This is called peripheral neuropathy.

This can sometimes mean it takes you longer to carry out normal tasks at work. The sensations and numbness can make it difficult to hold things, especially small objects, or to write or type. Some people find it difficult to carry on working if they have this side effect. It’s likely to get better once you’ve finished your treatment, but it may take weeks or months for you to fully recover.

Some computer programs have a speech recognition function that you might find useful if you write a lot for work. You talk into a microphone and the text appears on the screen, or the computer follows your voice commands.

Changes in your appearance

Cancer and its treatment may affect your appearance. For example, you may have changes in your skin or weight, hair loss, or scars from surgery. This may be hard to cope with, especially if your work involves meeting the public, performing or working face-to-face with customers.

There are things you can do to help you feel better about your appearance, and there are organisations that can offer you support. Some hospitals have programmes run by Look Good… Feel Better, which helps women manage the visible side effects of treatment and feel confident about how they look.

If you've lost your hair as a result of treatment, you may like to read our section, and see our video about coping with hair loss. You could also talk to your doctor or nurse about other sources of help.

You may find it helps to change the way you work, if possible. For example, you could talk to clients in a teleconference from home, instead of meeting them in person.

We have more information about coping with body changes.

Medicines to help with side effects

Some people find they have other side effects, such as soreness or pain, feeling sick (nausea), or problems with eating.

If you have any symptoms or side effects caused by your treatment, your doctors can usually prescribe medicines to help. Let your doctor know if medicines don’t ease the side effects. They may be able to prescribe more effective treatments for you.

Sometimes, changing the times you take medicines can help them to work better. You can discuss this with your doctor or nurse.

Back to If you're self-employed

Self-employment and cancer

If you’re self-employed you may worry about work and money during your cancer treatment. Support is available to help you cope financially and emotionally.

Making treatment decisions

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

Managing your workload

Cancer treatment can have an impact on the way you run your business. You may need to reorganise your activities to manage your workload.

Managing your finances

If you’re self-employed and have had to reduce your work activity, you may worry about your professional and personal finances. Support is available to help you cope with financial issues.