Working during treatment

It can be difficult to decide whether to carry on working during cancer treatment. You may need to keep working for financial reasons, especially if you are self-employed. Some people also decide to carry on working to focus their attention on something else. However, your ability to work will depend on your health, the type of treatment you have and your occupation.

You may need to discuss your work arrangements with your employer. These may need to change over time depending on your health situation.

To treat cancer, you may have one or a combination of the following treatments:

  • surgery
  • radiotherapy
  • chemotherapy
  • hormonal therapies
  • targeted therapies.

There’s a risk your cancer treatment will cause side effects. This may have an impact on your ability to do your job. Some side effects may prevent you from going to work for a while whereas others may be very mild.

Making decisions about work

Some people choose to carry on working, either full-time or part-time, during their treatment. Some people need to carry on working as much as possible for financial reasons.

You may also find that working during your treatment gives you satisfaction and helps you 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 your health, the type of cancer you have and what kind of treatment you choose.

It’s impossible to predict 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 will help to let your employer know this, so that they’re aware that you may need to change your work plans at short notice.

If you’re self-employed

Worries about money and work are very common for people who’ve been diagnosed with cancer. These questions can be difficult for anyone, but may seem especially tough if you’re self-employed.

The effects of cancer treatment

The aim of cancer treatment for many people is to cure the cancer. In some very slow-growing cancers, or cancers that have spread beyond the original area of the body, the aim may be to control the cancer and delay its progress.

The main treatments for cancer are surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Other treatments such as hormonal therapy and targeted therapies may also be used for certain cancers. Often a combination of more than one type of treatment is used.


Surgery may aim to remove all or part of a tumour. The effects of the surgery will depend on the part of the body being operated on and the extent of the surgery.

Some operations for cancer may be carried out as day surgery, which may mean that you only need to take a short time off work. Other operations are much larger and may mean spending a few weeks, or even months, away from work.

In some cases, surgery may affect someone’s ability to use a limb.


Radiotherapy treats cancer by using high-energy x-rays to destroy the cancer cells while doing as little harm as possible to normal cells. Radiotherapy treatment that aims to cure the cancer will often mean that you need to go to the hospital every weekday for several weeks.

Each treatment only takes a few minutes, but travelling to and from the hospital and waiting for the treatment may take up a large part of the day.

Some people manage to continue working during radiotherapy treatment, but may need to reduce their hours. Other people stop working completely while they’re having radiotherapy and for a few weeks afterwards.

Side effects of radiotherapy

Radiotherapy may make you feel tired. Other side effects will depend on the part of your body that’s being treated. The side effects tend to begin a couple of weeks after the treatment starts and may slowly get worse as treatment goes on.

These effects may continue for some weeks after the treatment’s ended. Then they usually improve gradually. However, the tiredness can take longer to improve, and some people find it’s many months before they get their energy back.

We have more information about side effects of radiotherapy.


Chemotherapy drugs interfere with the process of cell division. They affect normal cells as well as cancer cells. As a result, they often cause side effects.

The drugs are often given as a liquid through a drip into a vein (intravenously). They circulate in the bloodstream and reach the cancer cells wherever they are in the body. Some chemotherapy drugs are taken as tablets or capsules, which can be taken at home.

Intravenous chemotherapy may take minutes, hours or a few days. The treatment is followed by a few weeks of rest to allow the body to recover from any side effects. Together, the treatment and the rest period are known as a cycle of chemotherapy. Sometimes a drug is given continuously into the vein by a small portable pump over a set period of time.

Your cancer doctor will explain the number of cycles you need to treat the cancer. A complete course of treatment may take several months.

Chemotherapy affects people in different ways, but there’s usually a pattern of side effects after each cycle of treatment. After your first cycle, you’ll have a better idea of how much you’re able to do.

Some people find that they can’t work at all. Others are able to keep working, or they find that they just need to take a few days off after each cycle of treatment. They can then work until the next treatment is due.

Side effects of chemotherapy 

Different chemotherapy drugs have different side effects.

Side effects can include hair loss, a sore mouth, tiredness, feeling sick or being sick, and diarrhoea. A significant side effect of many chemotherapy drugs is that they can temporarily stop the bone marrow making new blood cells. This means your immunity is reduced and you’re more likely to get infections. You may also become anaemic (when the number of red blood cells in your blood is low), or have bleeding problems, such as nosebleeds or bruising easily.

If your bone marrow isn’t working properly, you may need to take antibiotics to treat infection, or have a blood transfusion if you’re anaemic. You’ll have regular blood tests between courses of treatment to monitor the effects.

Hormonal therapies

Hormonal therapies are drugs that can stop or slow the growth of cancer cells by either:

  • changing the level of particular hormones in the body
  • preventing the hormones affecting the cancer cells.

Most hormonal therapies are given as tablets, but some are given as injections every few weeks or months.

These treatments are usually given for months or years.

Side effects of hormonal therapies

Hormonal therapies can cause side effects such as weight gain, muscle pain, hot flushes, sweats, tiredness, and lowered sex drive. They’ll usually have less of an effect on your ability to work than other cancer treatments.

Targeted therapies

These are a newer group of treatments that work by targeting the growth of cancer cells. They generally have little effect on normal cell growth, so they usually have less troublesome side effects than chemotherapy drugs. Targeted therapies may be given as a drip (intravenous infusion) or as tablets.

Side effects of targeted therapies

Possible side effects include flu-like symptoms, chills, headaches, a temperature, lowered resistance to infection, and tiredness. Some treatments may also cause sickness and diarrhoea.

Many people are able to carry on working while taking these therapies, but tiredness and other side effects may sometimes make it difficult.

Back to Information for employees

Policies and resources

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

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.

Talking to your employer

You’re not required to tell your employer about your cancer, but it can help them to support you during treatment.