Coping with side effects or symptoms

You may have side effects or symptoms from cancer or its treatment. These can affect your work life. However, there are things which you can do to help:

  • Plan work days around treatment, if you can.
  • Try to avoid physically demanding or stressful tasks the day before treatment and for a few days after it.
  • Keep a diary of how you feel during treatment. You may find a pattern that will help you know when you are well enough to work.
  • Ask your healthcare team if you can have appointments and treatments at times that suit your work. For example, having chemotherapy on a Friday afternoon may allow you to recover over the weekend.
  • Try to make time to relax. Some people find complementary therapies such as relaxation or massage helpful.
  • Eat as well as you can to keep your energy levels up.
  • Plan to rest after any activity. Short naps and breaks can help. It may also help to rest after meals.


Fatigue means feeling tired or exhausted. It is a very common problem for people living with cancer.

You may feel extremely tired or exhausted all or most of the time. People with cancer-related fatigue may get tired more quickly. You may find it very hard to do their usual tasks at work. Tiredness can make it hard to concentrate or make decisions. You may also feel more emotional and less patient than usual.

If you want to keep working, see if you could make changes to make your work less tiring. Talk to your manager about reasonable adjustments to your work.

Possible changes could include:

  • regular rests and short naps – you may find this useful after an activity or a meal
  • working from home, or if you are self-employed, changing your working location
  • avoiding physically demanding duties
  • planning work around times when you have more energy.

Ask your manager if there is a comfortable place you can rest, such as a first aid room. Using a fatigue diary may help you see what days or times you are usually more tired. This can help you decide when it is best for you to work or rest.

Regular physical activity can help to reduce tiredness. Even taking a short walk on your lunch break can give you more energy. It can also help reduce stress.

Explaining how fatigue affects you can help the people you work with understand what you are coping with. It may be difficult for some people to know how tired you are, especially if you look well.

Risk of infection

Some cancer treatments can reduce the number of white blood cells you have. Chemotherapy often has this effect. White blood cells fight infection. If you have fewer of these cells, you are more likely to get an infection. If your white blood cell count is very low, you may not be able to work. Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse will explain when it is likely to be low.

If you have a low white blood cell count, you need to avoid people with symptoms of illnesses that may be infectious, such as:

  • a sore throat
  • a cold
  • flu
  • diarrhoea
  • vomiting
  • other kinds of infection, such as chickenpox.

If you have been near someone with an infection, ask your cancer doctor or specialist nurse for advice as soon as possible.

If you work in busy places, you may be around with people with infections without knowing it. If you can, work from home so you are less likely to get an infection. It is also best to avoid crowds if you travel by public transport. If you can, change your working hours so you can travel when it is less busy. You could ask your workplace to have hand sanitiser available and to encourage people to use it. This can help to stop the spread of infections at work.

The Access to Work scheme may provide funding for you to get taxis to work if travelling is a problem. Contact Access to Work (NI) if you live in Northern Ireland.

Bruising and bleeding

Cancer treatments can reduce the number of platelets in your blood. Platelets are cells that help your blood to clot. If your platelet cell count is low, you may need to avoid physical jobs that could cause injuries or bruising.

Numbness or tingling of the hands and feet

Some chemotherapy and targeted therapies can affect the nerves. This can cause:

  • numbness
  • pins and needles
  • pain in your hands and feet.

This is called peripheral neuropathy. It may make it difficult to hold things, write or type. This can mean some tasks take you longer to do.

Peripheral neuropathy usually slowly gets better after treatment, but sometimes it is permanent.

Changes to your appearance

Some cancer treatments may cause:

Some people find these changes make them uncomfortable in meetings or in public.

It takes time to adjust to a change in your appearance and to feel less anxious. There are things you can do to manage other people’s reactions and any anxiety.

If you have an obvious change in your appearance, you could ask someone at work to tell the people you work with. Or you may prefer to tell people yourself.

If you feel less confident because of a change in your appearance, it may help to:

  • have a colleague go with you for a while when you meet new people
  • work from home for a short while if you can, until you feel more confident
  • talk to your cancer doctor or specialist nurse if this stops you working or socialising – they may be able to refer you to someone who can help.

Other side effects or symptoms

There may be other side effects or symptoms depending on the type of cancer and your treatment. Let your cancer doctor know if you have other problems. These could include:

  • pain
  • feeling sick
  • problems eating.

They can prescribe medicines to help or give you advice. If your symptoms do not improve, tell your cancer doctor or specialist nurse.

Some people who have finished treatment may develop long-term side effects. Talk to your doctor or nurse if you are experiencing any problems.

Difficulty writing

If you write a lot for work and are finding it difficult, you might find it helpful to use speech recognition software. This lets you talk into a microphone to:

  • write words on the screen using your voice
  • use voice commands to control your computer.

If your computer does not have this software, you can buy it. For example, you can get this software from Nuance.

Tips for dealing with side effects or symptoms

You can talk to your manager about making reasonable adjustments to help you manage side effects or symptoms.

Some examples are:

  • more flexible working arrangements
  • scheduling your time around the days you are most needed at work
  • agreeing which tasks are most important, what you can manage and what you can ask others to do
  • changing your duties or making any changes to your role that you think would help
  • working from home when possible – your manager can tell you if there is a policy and what is involved
  • having someone who will assess which phone calls you need to take and forward important emails to you
  • letting colleagues know how you will manage your work, and how and when they can contact you.

Taking good care of yourself is also important. Eating well can help you to feel better and can give you more energy. Finding ways to relieve stress can also help.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 30 April 2019
Next review: 31 October 2021

This content is currently being reviewed. New information will be coming soon.

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