Coping at work during treatment

The impact cancer treatment has on your work will depend on your situation. Find out more about the support you can get at work during treatment.

Making decisions about work

You might need to make decisions about working during treatment. Important things to think about are:

  • your financial situation
  • how treatment will affect you.

You might want to ask yourself some questions before you make a decision:

  • Are there any risks to working during treatment?
  • Will I need to work less for a period of time?
  • Should I think about working in a different way to allow time for treatment and rest?
  • Who can help me at work in practical ways?
  • Will I need extra financial help and where can I get it?

Keeping in touch with your employer during treatment

If you are going to be off work for a while, you may want to talk to your employer about how you want to keep in touch.

You could agree on:

  • how often you want to be contacted
  • when you want to be contacted
  • how you want to be contacted – for example, by phone or email.

You can review this with your manager as things may change over time.

You may also decide you want to keep in touch with certain colleagues by phone or email. If your work has a regular newsletter, you may want this to be sent to you. This may make you feel like you are keeping up with what is happening at work.

Sometimes, employers have policies in place advising how staff will be contacted when they are away from work. Take some time to discuss this with your manager and see what adjustments could be made if this does not feel right for you.

We have more information about talking to your employer.

Talking to other people at work

It is up to you if you want to tell colleagues about your diagnosis. Talking to the people you work with about it can be difficult.

We have more information about talking to people at work about cancer.

Your employment rights

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.

We have more information about types of discrimination and what you can do if you need more support.

Carers who are working are also protected from some types of discrimination.

Reasonable adjustments

If you are in paid employment and have or have ever had cancer, your employer should consider making reasonable adjustments to support you.

These are changes to the workplace or your job that allow you to keep working or return to work.

Both the Equality Act and the Disability Discrimination Act say that if your employer is aware of your disability, they must try to make reasonable adjustments.

We have more information about reasonable adjustments.

Taking time off work for cancer treatment

Time off from work is an example of a reasonable adjustment your employer may be able to make.

You may need to take time off for appointments and treatment. You do not have a legal right to paid time off for things like medical appointments unless your employment contract specifically states this. But if you talk to your employer as soon as possible, you can both agree on what to do.

Coping with side effects or symptoms at work

It can be hard to cope with treatment side effects or cancer symptoms at work. The following things may help:

  • If you can, plan your working days around treatment.
  • 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 relax. Some people find complementary therapies helpful, such as relaxation or massage. These are not always safe for people with cancer, so check with your cancer doctor before having any.
  • Eat as well as you can to help 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.

Your employer can also make reasonable adjustments to help you cope with treatment side effects or cancer symptoms at work.

Some examples are:

  • more flexible working arrangements
  • working from home when possible – your manager can tell you if there is a company policy and what is involved
  • scheduling your time around the days you are most needed at work
  • agreeing on which tasks are most important, what you can manage and what you could ask others to do
  • changing your duties or making any changes to your role that you think would help
  • 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 care of yourself is important. Finding ways to relieve stress can also help.

Fatigue

Fatigue means feeling tired or exhausted. It is a very common symptom or side effect for people with cancer.

You may feel very tired all or most of the time. You may get tired more quickly than you used to, and after less activity. You may find it hard to do your usual tasks at work. Tiredness can make it hard to concentrate or make decisions. You may also feel more emotional than usual.

If you want to keep working, talk to your manager about ways to make your work less tiring. This is part of making reasonable adjustments.

Possible changes could include:

  • having regular rests and short naps – you may find this useful after an activity or a meal
  • working from home if possible
  • avoiding physically demanding tasks
  • planning work around times when you have more energy.

Ask your manager if there is a quiet place for you to rest at work.

Using a fatigue diary may help you see when 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 reduce tiredness. Even going for 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 your colleagues 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 in your blood. These cells fight infection. If the number of white blood cells is low, you are more likely to get an infection or find it harder to fight 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 should try to avoid people with illnesses that may be infectious, such as:

  • a sore throat
  • a cold
  • flu
  • diarrhoea
  • sickness (vomiting)
  • coronavirus (covid)
  • 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 are aiming to keep working during your treatment, talk to your manager or the HR department. They can give you support and consider making adjustments to help you avoid getting an infection. This may include working from home or working different hours so that you travel to and from work at quieter times. These adjustments mean you spend less time around people who could pass an infection to you.

The Access to Work scheme in England, Scotland and Wales 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.

If you have to go to a workplace, try to ensure the area is well ventilated. Washing your hands regularly can help stop infection spreading. If you work at a desk, it may be possible to have your own space away from others rather than working in an open plan area.

Talk to your employer about what adjustments could be made. We have more information about avoiding infection.

Bruising and bleeding

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

Numbness or tingling of the hands and feet

Some cancer treatments can affect the nerves. This can cause numb, tingling or painful hands or 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 improves after treatment finishes. But for some people, it may never go away.

This can be hard if you use your hands for work – for example, if you drive or use a keyboard for work, or if you are a hairdresser or builder. If you have any of these symptoms, talk to your cancer doctor or specialist nurse. We have more information about coping with peripheral neuropathy.

Try talking to your employer to find out if there is anything they can do to make things easier for you.

Changes to your appearance

Some cancer treatments may cause:

Some people find that 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 a colleague 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 the change 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 treatment side effects or cancer symptoms depending on the type of cancer and your treatment. These may include:

Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse can prescribe medicines to help or give you advice.

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

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

We have more information about:

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
|
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.