5 mins. read

Can you still work if you have cancer? Your questions answered

Key Takeaways

  • Go with how you feel: Getting to know how treatment could affect you will help you to put loose plans in place. However you won’t really know whether you will want to keep working until you have started treatment.
  • Keep talking: Keeping communication open with your manager and team will help you to receive the best support possible, whilst enabling your colleagues to understand how they can help too.
  • Look after yourself: Cancer treatment can easily take its toll on your wellbeing causing tiredness and various side effects; listening to your mind and body – and hitting pause when you need to – will help minimise additional stress and may help with recovery.

A cancer diagnosis comes with many questions; friends and family will have questions for you, and you’ll inevitably have questions for your oncology team, support network and employers. One of those is likely to be: ‘Can I still work during cancer treatment?’

It’s an important question. The structure and normality offered by work can feel like a lifeline during a cancer diagnosis and treatment, and there are financial considerations, too. Here we look at how cancer treatment can affect your work, as well as adaptations which can be made to help you.

Get to know your cancer and how it might affect you

Different cancers affect people in different ways, therefore getting to know the specific symptoms and side effects associated with the type and stage of cancer you’ve been diagnosed with, as well as its treatment, can be a key indicator in knowing if you can still work. Your oncology team will be able to talk you through this. 

However, accurately predicting how you will respond to treatment and how significant side effects will be, is a challenge. Be prepared that your intentions around continuing to work may change once treatment has started.

If you are having chemotherapy, you will only really know if you can still work, and in what capacity, once treatment has started. Some people are unable to work at all during chemotherapy, whilst others are able to keep working or perhaps find they need to take a few days off between treatments.

Talk to your manager

It’s often a good idea to talk to your manager to begin to put adaptations and support in place if you wish to keep working. 

Your employer should have an existing policy outlining pay, time off and the adjustments they can make – bigger organisations may even have a specific cancer policy. Going through these details, as well as discussing how your cancer might affect you, will help put an effective plan in place which works for you and your employer – allowing you to undergo treatment without hindering recovery.

Put adaptations in place

Specific changes to your workload, duties and / or working environment will depend on the type of cancer you have and the line of work you are in. For example, if you have had breast cancer surgery then you will need to be careful lifting. Getting help from colleagues with heavy lifting, or changing duties altogether would be a good adaptation to have in place.

Colon cancer surgery, along with other cancer surgeries, can also prohibit you from lifting heavy loads, plus it can limit how long you are able to stand for, how far you can walk, your ability to bend or reach, plus your ability to carry things. This means you may not be able to carry out intensive physical activities involved in work such as construction, agriculture, manufacturing, and driving.

With lung cancer, it would be beneficial to consider your specific symptoms and side effects. For example you may experience shortness of breath, therefore taking the stairs or inhaling fumes in a workplace would not be suitable. 

Cancer can present challenges in less physical roles, too. Surgery and treatment can make sitting at a desk and performing computer-based work difficult as you may experience physical symptoms including fatigue, nausea and aches and pains. Early menopause, brain fog, short-term memory challenges can also occur during chemotherapy which may impact your ability to concentrate.

Take time off when needed

Cancers such as breast cancer, colon cancer and prostate cancer may require surgery meaning you will most likely need to take time off work. Generally you can return to work two to three weeks after an operation, depending on the nature of your job.

Along with treatment, looking after yourself is important during treatment and whilst recovering. This means not only taking time off for appointments, but taking additional, unplanned time off as and when you feel you need to.

Look after your wellbeing

Whatever you decide, living with cancer will not only affect you physically but emotionally too. Practising self-care, taking time off and putting work related adaptations and support in place can make coping with cancer a little less overwhelming, however it may be worth seeking emotional support too. 

This could be looking for local or online support groups, or perhaps accessing counselling through your employer if this is something they can offer. 

Here at Perci we offer comprehensive cancer support for employees living with or beyond cancer. If you would like to discuss how we can help you to create a cancer inclusive workplace, get in touch