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

How much work you are able to do during cancer treatment will depend on the stage of the cancer, the type of treatment you’re having and the type of work you do.

It may be difficult to plan ahead, but it’s sensible to reduce your workload if you can. It’s useful to have a back-up plan for your business in case you find treatment more difficult than you expected.

Whatever you decide, you will probably need to take time away from work for appointments, treatment and follow-up.

We have more information that could help if you’re thinking of stopping work altogether.

Occupational health advice

Some people working for an employer have access to help from an occupational health adviser. This is a health professional, such as a nurse or doctor, who specialises in workplace health issues.

Occupational health advisers use their medical knowledge and understanding of various jobs to help people make decisions about work.

They can advise you on health and safety laws, and find ways for you to work around the cancer and its treatment. Occupational health advice is not part of the treatment plan for most people with cancer. However, research suggests that more working people with cancer could benefit from this advice.

As a self-employed person, you would usually need to pay for this advice privately. You can find a private service through the Commercial Occupational Health Providers Association.


Coping with symptoms and side effects while working

When you are self-employed, you will need to make sure you look after yourself. You may not have the level of support that someone employed by a large organisation has. The following tips may help:

  • Keep a diary of how you feel during your treatment and see whether patterns emerge. This will help you know when you are feeling strong enough to work. You could download our fatigue diary [PDF].
  • Talk to your doctor and the team scheduling your treatment about the best times for appointments. For example, having chemotherapy on a Friday afternoon might give you time to recover over the weekend. Having radiotherapy late in the afternoon may enable you to continue working for the earlier part of the day.
  • Meditation or complementary therapies may help you feel less stressed, tense and anxious.
  • Eat as well as you can to keep your energy levels up.
  • Plan to rest after any activity. Short naps and rest periods are useful. You may need a rest after meals.

It can help to plan your days around your treatment. Try to plan important events for times when you are likely to feel your best, perhaps the week before your next cycle of treatment.


Fatigue (feeling tired and weak)

Cancer and its treatment often make people feel very tired and weak. Some people find their tiredness is mild and doesn’t interfere much with their work. However others find that tiredness really affects their ability to work.

Some of the more common effects of fatigue are:

  • difficulty completing small, everyday tasks
  • a feeling of having no strength or energy
  • breathlessness after only light activity
  • dizziness or feeling light-headed
  • feeling more emotional than usual
  • having trouble remembering things, thinking, speaking or making decisions.

You may find it difficult to concentrate and this can have an effect on your work and safety.

Fatigue may also affect your relationships with your customers, suppliers and contacts. It can make you become impatient with people, or make you want to avoid socialising as it’s too much effort. We have a section on fatigue, which may help.


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.


Access to work

The Access to Work programme can help if you have a long-term health condition that affects your ability to work.

It gives advice and support to help you meet the additional costs that may arise because of the cancer. It is available for both employed and self-employed workers.

The scheme may pay for:

  • special aids, equipment or adaptations needed as a direct result of your condition
  • travel to and from work if you can’t use public transport
  • a support worker.

To apply in England, Scotland and Wales, contact Access to Work. Details can be found at gov.uk/access-to-work or you can ask the disability employment adviser at your local Jobcentre. In Northern Ireland, contact an employment service adviser in your local Jobs and Benefits Office or Jobcentre.

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.