Self-employment and cancer

If you are self-employed

Running your own business can be very rewarding. But a cancer diagnosis can be especially worrying if you are self-employed.

You may have some of the following questions:

  • How will my business be affected?
  • How will I cope financially?
  • Who will support me?

You may need to make decisions about how to keep your business going during and after cancer treatment.

Booklets and resources

Where can I get support?

You may be able to get support through:

  • Charities such as Macmillan – call us for free on 0808 808 0000 to find out how we can support you.
  • Financial support schemes to help you stay in work – such as the Access to Work scheme, or the Access to Work (NI) scheme if you live in Northern Ireland.
  • State benefits from the government to support you when you are ill or unable to work.

There are also Government schemes supporting small businesses and people who are self-employed – these include:

What benefits am I entitled to?

When making decisions about taking time off work, you may need to think about:

  • your finances
  • any benefits you could get.

Benefits are payments from the government to people who need financial help.

How will cancer affect my work life?

How cancer affects your work life will depend on different things. These include:

  • the type of cancer
  • the stage of the cancer
  • the type of treatment you have.
Related pages

Can I work while having cancer treatment?

You might need to make decisions about working during treatment. Your specialist nurse can tell you more about how the treatment might affect you. You can then decide whether it is possible for you to work.

It is impossible to know how you will react to treatment until you start. This makes it hard to plan ahead and decide how much work to take on. It may help to let your colleagues or customers know you may need to change your plans at short notice.

It may help to think about what you could do in different situations. For example, when treatment is finished, you may start to recover and feel able to work more again. If this happens you could work reduced hours, gradually building them up. But you would need to be prepared to have less income.

Questions to ask yourself

When you are thinking about working while having treatment, ask yourself some questions:

  • Will I need to do less with my business for a while?
  • Will I need to run my business in a different way, to make time for treatment and rest?
  • Will someone be able to help me in practical ways?
  • Can I pay someone else to run my business for a while?
  • If so, can I still make a profit?
  • Will I need extra financial help during this time?
  • If so, where can I get it?
  • Have I spoken to my insurers to check if I am still covered?
  • Does my business insurance cover income protection?

It may help to talk about these questions with someone who knows you well and understands the work you do. Then you can make a plan that works for you.

Booklets and resources

How will cancer affect my feelings about work?

Being diagnosed with cancer and having to take time away from your business can cause many different emotions. You may have put a lot of time and money into your business to make it successful. You may feel:

  • angry that you cannot work when you have a lot to do
  • helpless and worried about the business or paying bills
  • lonely and isolated, if you are unable to work for periods of time
  • less confident in yourself and your work
  • less independent, or like you have lost a sense of normality
  • tired and stressed
  • that things you used to find easy are now much more difficult.

Talking about your feelings can often help. You might worry that asking for help makes you a burden. But people are usually pleased to help and support you. 

It can be difficult to know who to talk to and what to say. It is important to speak to someone you feel comfortable with and trust.

How will cancer affect my business?

You may need to make decisions about how to keep your business going during and after cancer treatment.

If you need to reduce your working hours, the cash flow of your business could be affected. You may be worried that you do not have cash to pay your employees or repay a business loan.

Being self-employed may mean you work by yourself. It may mean that you can work in a more flexible way and set your own pace.

What are my rights if I am self-employed?

If you have, or have ever had cancer, the law considers you to be disabled. This means you cannot be treated less favourably than people who do not have cancer because you have cancer, or for reasons connected to the cancer. That would be discrimination.

If you are self-employed, you may not have legal protection against discrimination.

  • If you are employed under a contract

    In some cases, you may be protected against discrimination if you are employed under a contract. This means there is an agreement between you and an employer that you will personally do work and be paid for it.

  • If you work with a public authority

    You may also be protected if you work with a public authority, under their public sector equality duty. You are protected from discrimination in the provision of services to you.

  • If you have your own business

    If you have your own business, you may not be protected from disability discrimination by a customer or client.

Problems may happen because of a misunderstanding about cancer. Some examples of this are a client thinking that:

  • you can no longer do the same work
  • you may be less committed to work because of the cancer
  • cancer makes you unsuitable for certain contracts.

Or another contractor may think that they will need to do extra work because you are having treatment.

Any of these attitudes can lead to difficulties in your work life when you have cancer.

Deciding who to tell

When you are self-employed, other people or businesses may rely on you to:

  • deliver your goods or services
  • make payments to them.

They need to know if these agreements will be affected. This does not mean you must tell them you have cancer.

It may help to consider the pros and cons of telling people.

Reasons to tell people about the cancer

  • They will understand why you need longer deadlines or more time to pay.
  • You could find them very supportive and get practical help.
  • It might prevent them making embarrassing mistakes or misunderstandings.
  • It affects or protects your contract with them.

Reasons to limit what you say

  • They may worry you are not reliable.
  • You might want privacy, and you cannot guarantee everyone will respect this.
  • The conversation might get emotional when that is not helpful to you or your business.
  • The other person or organisation might not respect your rights or treat you fairly.

It could help to think about what the other person’s concerns and reactions might be. You can then prepare responses to reassure them or give them more information.

Here are some examples of different types of people and the things they might worry about:

  • Customer
    • That is a shock. What do I say now?
    • Will you be able to do the work? And will it be on time?
    • Will the work be of the same standard?
    • What if this changes our agreement?
    • What are my health and safety responsibilities? (If you work on their premises or are a sub-contractor).
    • What does the contract between us say (if anything) about this?
  • Supplier
    • Will you be able to pay me? Will it be on time?
    • What are my alternatives?
    • If there are changes, how long might they last?
    • What does the contract between us say (if anything) about this?
  • Banker or creditor
    • Can you meet your payments? How? When?
    • Are you now a higher credit risk?
    • What will happen if you cannot make payments?
    • What alternative arrangement could be made?
  • Employee
    • Does this mean the business will close?
    • Will you be able to pay me?
    • Will my workload increase or decrease, and can I cope with that?

Deciding how to tell people

Everyone has different ways of communicating. Some people like to talk about their thoughts and feelings, while others are more private. Cultural differences might affect this too.

If you decide to tell someone about the cancer, these tips may help:

  • Think about what you are going to say. You could write down a few main points, especially if you will be talking on the phone.
  • Try to choose a good time to talk. Are you feeling able to talk today? Does the other person have time to give you their attention?
  • Is it better to tell them over the phone or in person? If face-to-face will be better, choose somewhere you feel comfortable.
  • Be prepared for the emotions you may both feel. You may not know about their past experiences, or how they will react.
  • Be careful about telling people in writing. It is easy to get the wrong idea from an email or note, and it can seem impersonal.

You can decide:

  • who to tell
  • what to tell them
  • how much you want them to know.

Ask people to respect your privacy and make it clear if you want them to keep your conversation confidential. Think about whether this will put them in an awkward situation.

If you have a business partner, you could ask them to tell people if you feel this would be easier.

As with any big decision, you may want to talk to someone you trust and ask for their opinion first. You can ask a professional adviser, such as your accountant. Try to have important conversations when you are feeling your best. Be clear what your goals are before you start. It might help to make notes before your meeting to help you feel more prepared.

How do I make decisions about my business?

You may need to think about different things when making decisions about your business. Your finances and how your treatment will affect you are usually important factors.

You may want to take time away from your work. This can depend on the type of work you do and whether anyone else can help for a while.

About our information

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been approved by Liz Egan, formerly with Macmillan’s Work and cancer team.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

The language we use

We want everyone affected by cancer to feel our information is written for them.

We want our information to be as clear as possible. To do this, we try to:

  • use plain English
  • explain medical words
  • use short sentences
  • use illustrations to explain text
  • structure the information clearly
  • make sure important points are clear.

We use gender-inclusive language and talk to our readers as ‘you’ so that everyone feels included. Where clinically necessary we use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ or ‘male’ and ‘female’. For example, we do so when talking about parts of the body or mentioning statistics or research about who is affected.

You can read more about how we produce our information here.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 01 September 2023
Next review: 01 September 2026
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

This means it is easy to use, up-to-date and based on the latest evidence. Learn more about how we produce our information.