About cancer discrimination at work

If you have or have ever had cancer, the law considers this a disability. This means you cannot be treated less favourably than people who do not have cancer because you have cancer.

You also cannot be treated less favourably for reasons connected to the cancer. That would be discrimination.

There are laws that protect you from being discriminated against at work because of cancer. If you live in:

  • England, Scotland or Wales, the Equality Act 2010 protects you
  • Northern Ireland, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 protects you

If you are unsure whether you are protected, contact our work support line free on 0808 808 00 00 for more advice.

Examples of disability discrimination

Experiencing discrimination because of cancer can happen in different ways. Here are some examples of disability discrimination that may happen if you are affected by cancer:

  • An employer giving you a formal warning for having a lot of time off sick, without taking your cancer diagnosis into account.
  • An employer suggesting that it would be better if you retired or stopped working, because you have cancer.
  • Being dismissed for a reason related to having cancer.
  • Being moved to a lower-paid or less demanding job without your agreement, for a reason related to having cancer.
  • Not getting a promotion when someone with less experience or less ability to do the job does, because of a reason related to having cancer.
  • Being chosen for redundancy for a reason related to having cancer. For example, being chosen because you have used more sick leave than your colleagues, due to cancer or treatment.
  • Not being offered a job because you have cancer.
  • Not being allowed time off for medical appointments that are related to having cancer.
  • Having a bad appraisal or performance review for a reason related to having cancer. For example, having a bad review because you have had a lot of sick leave or tiredness and so have not met targets or objectives.
  • An employer making it difficult for you to get any sick pay you are entitled to.

Types of disability discrimination

There are different types of disability discrimination:
  • Direct disability discrimination

    Direct disability discrimination is when someone is treated less favourably than another person because they have a disability.

    Sometimes, this type of discrimination happens even if someone feels they are trying to help. For example, your employer might say that being promoted would be too difficult for you, because of the cancer. You can ask to have a conversation with your employer about the impact of a new job on your health. This way, you decide together what is best for you.

    To claim direct discrimination, your employer needs to know, or be reasonably expected to know, that you have a disability.

    An example of direct disability discrimination
    You are denied a job because the employer knows you have had cancer in the past and they are worried that you might have to take sick leave in the future. This is direct disability discrimination because you are being treated less favourably than someone who has not had cancer.

  • Discrimination arising from disability

    Discrimination arising from disability is when someone with a disability such as cancer is treated unfavourably because of something that happens as a result of their disability. This is different to direct disability discrimination, which is discrimination based on the disability itself.

    With discrimination arising from disability, you do not need to show that someone without a disability would have been treated differently. Instead, you have to show that the unfavourable treatment you have experienced is because of something that happened as a result of the disability.

    Direct disability discrimination cannot be considered fair (justified). In some cases, discrimination arising from disability may be considered fair if your employer can show they acted in a way that was reasonably necessary. For example, it might be justified if their actions were for a genuine business need. Deciding what is justified depends on the case.

    To claim discrimination arising from disability, your employer needs to know, or be reasonably expected to know, that you have a disability.

    An example of discrimination arising from disability
    If your employer dismisses you because of cancer-related sickness absence, that would be discrimination arising from disability unless your employer can show that their decision was reasonably necessary for business reasons. They would have to show there were no reasonable alternatives.

  • Indirect disability discrimination

    Indirect disability discrimination is when a rule, policy or practice appears to treat all employees the same, but it actually puts employees with a disability at a disadvantage compared to employees who do not have that disability.

    An employer may be able to justify their actions if they can show that there is a genuine business need. For example, they may be justified if the rule, policy or practice is reasonably necessary and there is not a non-discriminatory option available.

    To claim indirect disability discrimination, your employer does not need to know about your disability.

    An example of indirect disability discrimination
    You apply for a part-time job but the employer has a policy that new starters have to be available full time for the first month for training. You are not able to do that because of the effects of cancer. Because the policy disadvantages Disabled people, it is indirect discrimination unless the employer can justify it.

  • Harassment

    Harassment is when someone treats you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, insulted or intimidated. This might include written or spoken comments, or being teased. When this behaviour is related to cancer, you are protected by law.

    An example of harassment
    If you are singled out by other members of staff because of the cancer or side effects from the cancer, such as hair loss, this would be considered harassment.
  • Victimisation

    Victimisation is when you are treated badly because you have done, or intend to do, something that is protected by law. This is called a protected act. Protected acts include:

    • making a complaint about discrimination or harassment under the Equality Act or the Disability Discrimination Act
    • helping someone else make a complaint about discrimination or harassment.

    You do not have to be Disabled to claim victimisation. You only have to show that you have done a protected act.

    • In England, Scotland and Wales, under the Equality Act, you do not need to show that you have been treated less favourably than someone who has not made a complaint. You only need to show that you were treated badly.
    • In Northern Ireland, under the Disability Discrimination Act, you need to show that you have been treated less favourably than someone who has not made a complaint.

    You are not protected by this legislation if you do not act honestly and do not believe what you are saying is true. You are protected if you give information that is wrong, but which you thought was true at the time.

    An example of victimisation
    You cannot be held back in work and denied things like training because you raised a grievance about being harassed by a colleague because of your illness.
  • Vicarious liability

    An employer can be held responsible for how its employees behave during their employment. This is called vicarious liability.

    An employer could be vicariously liable for acts of discrimination, harassment or victimisation that are done by other employees. An employer can still be vicariously liable if they are unaware that the acts are happening.

    An example of vicarious liability
    An employer could be vicariously liable if your colleague made offensive comments about your partner’s cancer to other employees.

Are you being discriminated against

If you feel you are being discriminated against, it is best to start by talking to your:

  • manager
  • human resources (HR) manager
  • occupational health adviser.

Talking to any of these people may help resolve the problem.

If you are a member of a trade union, you can get help and support from a union representative.

What you can do for yourself

  • Find out about relevant company policies that deal with unfair treatment. Check the employee handbook or intranet (internal website) if you have it, or ask your line manager or HR manager.
  • Check your legal rights – we have more information about cancer and employment rights.
  • Find out about help from the government – Access to Work is a scheme that offers grants and advice to help employees with a disability or health condition keep working.
  • Try to go to your employer with suggestions and solutions. This might include making reasonable adjustments in the workplace.
  • Contact the Work Support service on the Macmillan Support Line by calling 0808 808 00 00.

Unresolved problems

If you feel your employer is not acting in a reasonable and fair way, or you have not been able to resolve the problem in a way that you are happy with, there are different options.

  • Formal complaint

    This is sometimes called a formal grievance. Your employer should have a written grievance policy that explains how to make a formal complaint. If you are not sure what the grievance policy says or where to find it, ask a HR manager.

    It is a good idea to get advice from a staff or union representative if you have one. If you have already raised a grievance that has not been successful, you can contact:

  • An employment or industrial tribunal

    If you feel your employer is being unreasonable and not dealing with your grievance fairly, you can complain to an employment or industrial tribunal.

    This is an independent body that makes decisions in legal disputes between employees and employers. It is called an industrial tribunal in Northern Ireland.

    Before making a claim to an employment or industrial tribunal, you must notify:

    Acas and the LRA can help sort out disputes and avoid going to an employment tribunal.

Time limit

There are short, strict time limits for making a claim to an employment or industrial tribunal. You will usually need to make your claim within 3 months, minus 1 day, of the problem happening. For example, if you were discriminated against on 13 July, you need to start the process by 12 October. But there are a few exceptions.

It is important to get advice as soon as possible. The following organisations provide information about discrimination and your rights:

We have more information in our booklet Your rights at work when you are affected by cancer.

Returning to work

If you have worked with your employer to explore reasonable adjustments and steps to return to work, but have not been able to, you may need to consider leaving your role. If this happens, we have more information about finding a new job.

In some circumstances, if you are not well enough to return to work or you are not able to do your work because of your health, an employer may follow a disciplinary route towards dismissal. This is called dismissal under capability. Your employer has to prove that they have taken all steps to help you return to work.

This is usually a last resort. Our Work Support team can give you more information about this. Contact us free on 0808 808 00 00.

Finding a new job

Looking for a new job after cancer treatment can be a positive part of your recovery. You may decide to return to the kind of work you did before, but with a different employer. Or you may want a change of career. 

You can be asked about disability but they must follow the law.

Related pages

What if I am self-employed?

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

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 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.

Even if the law does not protect you, talking to people you work with about the cancer diagnosis and its impact can often help.

Getting advice

If you feel you are being treated unfairly, it is best to start by talking to your customer or client.

Talking openly about what you and your customer need may help to find a solution. You could suggest solutions to show your commitment to the job. This could include making small changes to your duties to fit with your needs.

The Access to Work scheme may be able to help with the cost of these changes if needed. Visit Access to Work for more information about the scheme in England, Scotland and Wales. Visit NIDirect for more information about the scheme in Northern Ireland.

If you are contracted by another business, ask them or their human resources (HR) manager about relevant company policies. For example, the company may have:

  • an equality and diversity policy
  • a bullying and harassment policy
  • an equal opportunities policy.

These are usually found in the employee handbook or on the intranet, if they have one. You may not have access to these policies, but you can still ask to see them.

If you want to know how equality laws could help you, call:

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 Michelle Rouse Griffiths, Professional Development and Knowledge Lead, Macmillan Cancer Support and 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.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 01 September 2023
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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.