How cancer may affect your work life

Cancer can cause uncertainties in your work life. You may not know how it will affect work in the short term or in the future. It is a good idea to contact your manager or human resources (HR or personnel) department early on. If they know about the possible effects of the cancer or treatment on your ability to work, they can support you better.

You will need time off work to have tests, appointments and treatments. Some people stop working during cancer treatment and for a while after until they feel ready to go back. Others carry on working, perhaps with reduced hours or changes to their job. Some people may decide not to go back to work. Or they may choose to do something different. Some others may not be able to go back to work because of the effects of cancer on their health.

Knowing more about the cancer and its treatments can help you understand the possible effects on your work life. Your cancer doctor or nurse can give you more information.

The main treatments are:

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

You may have a combination of treatments.

Cancer and your work life

Cancer can cause uncertainties that are hard to cope with in different areas of your life. One of these may be your work life. You may not know how it will affect work in the short term or in the future.

If you can, it’s a good idea to contact your manager or human resources (HR or personnel) department early on. You can talk to them about the possible effects of your illness on your work. If your manager knows about the possible effects of the cancer or treatment on your ability to work, they can support you better. If your workplace has an occupational health adviser you could ask your manager to refer you to them. They keep everything confidential if you ask them to.

Some people stop working during treatment and for a while after until they feel ready to go back. Others carry on working, perhaps with reduced hours or changes to their job. Working may give you a sense of normality and routine or may be essential for your finances. Your work may also be an important place for friendships and social life.

After treatment, going back to work may help you to feel you’re getting back to normal. Some people may decide not to go back to work. Or they may choose to do something different. Some others may not be able to go back to work because of the effects of cancer on their health.

How cancer affects your work life will depend on different things, such as:

  • the type of cancer and its stage (if it has spread)
  • your treatment and its side effects
  • your finances
  • the practical support you have.

You will need time off work to have tests, appointments and treatments. You may also need time to cope with and adjust to your feelings. It can be difficult to concentrate and manage your work when you feel anxious, shocked or upset.

Some people work around their treatment. Others may need more rest or feel too unwell to work.

Knowing more about treatment and its possible side effects can help you make decisions about your work life. Your doctor may tell you what your limits are with work. With some treatments, you may not know what to expect until you start.

Even then, things may change during and after treatment. You may become more tired or have other side effects that are harder to cope with. Because of this, your ability to work may change.

People can carry on working or return to work with support from their employer. The law says your employer has to consider making reasonable adjustments (changes) to help you. There may be different people at your workplace who can give you advice. There are also different organisations that can help.


Treatment and side effects

Knowing more about the cancer and its treatments can help you understand the possible effects on your work life. Your cancer doctor or nurse will give you more information. The main treatments are surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, hormonal therapy and targeted therapies. You may have a combination of treatments.

You can talk to your manager about the side effects of your treatment. They can then look at reasonable adjustments to help make things easier for you at work. Treatment side effects may change over time. For example, you may become more tired. Let your manager know how you are feeling so they can review things.

Surgery

The effects depend on the type of operation you have. If you have day surgery, you may only need a short time off work. But you may need radiotherapy or chemotherapy afterwards. This can have more effect on your ability to work.

A bigger operation means having more time off work to adjust and recover. After certain operations some people may need therapies to help, for example physiotherapy or speech therapy.

If surgery affects how a part of your body works, it may prevent you doing certain parts of your job.

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy uses high-energy x-rays to destroy cancer cells. You usually have it Monday to Friday as an outpatient. It can take up to several weeks depending on your course of treatment.

Treatment itself only takes a few minutes. But travelling to and from the hospital and waiting can take up a large part of the day.

Some people feel able to work during radiotherapy but may need to reduce their hours. The radiographers (who give the radiotherapy) may be able to time your treatment for before or after your work hours. Other people stop working completely during radiotherapy and for a few weeks afterwards.

Side effects

Radiotherapy can make you very tired. This can continue for weeks or months after treatment is over. Other side effects depend on the part of your body that’s being treated. Most last for a few weeks after treatment and then gradually improve.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. You usually have chemotherapy as an outpatient. It is given by injection into a vein (intravenously) or as tablets. Some people may need to go into hospital for a few days.

You usually have a break of a few weeks in between treatments to allow your body to recover. Some people can’t work because they’re too unwell. Others may take a few days off after each treatment and work reduced hours.

Side effects

These can include:

  • risk of infection or risk of bleeding (because of the effects on your blood cells)
  • tiredness
  • hair loss
  • feeling sick
  • diarrhoea.

If you feel able to work, there are precautions you may need to take to reduce your risk of infection.

Hormonal therapies

Hormonal therapies reduce the level of certain hormones or block their effects on the cancer cells. You usually have these drugs for months or years as tablets. Some are given as injections every few weeks or months.

Side effects

Hormonal therapies usually have less of an effect on your ability to work. They can cause tiredness, weight gain, hot flushes, sweats and muscle pain.

Targeted therapies

These drugs interfere with the way cancer cells grow. They often have less troublesome side effects than chemotherapy. You can have them as a drip (intravenous infusion) or as tablets. They are often given along with other treatments.

Side effects

Possible side effects include flu-like symptoms, chills, headaches, a raised temperature, lowered resistance to infection, and tiredness.

You may be able to carry on working if you are having a targeted therapy on its own. But tiredness and other side effects may sometimes make it difficult.

We have information about different cancer types, treatments and their side effects.

For five weeks I had treatment every day from Monday to Friday. My timetable was adjusted so I finished early and could get to these appointments.

Julia

I took the opportunity to work in my own office and stayed away from folks who clearly had a cold. Then during the few days after chemo where I felt sick or rough, I worked from home.

Ryan

Back to If you are an employee with cancer

Making decisions about work

Deciding whether to work during cancer treatment can be very difficult. It depends very much on individual circumstances.

Coping with side effects

Cancer treatment can cause different side effects. They can have an impact on your capacity to work.

Talking about cancer at work

It may be difficult for your employee to talk about their diagnosis, but open communication may make it easier for you to support them.