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Making decisions about working

The many decisions you need to make after a diagnosis of cancer and during treatment can be hard. Adding decisions about work to that load can feel overwhelming. This section aims to help by giving you things to think about, and suggesting options that may be available to you.

Work is an important part of many people’s lives. It can give a sense of purpose, independence and stability. For many people with cancer, the idea of giving up work can feel like another loss. Others may be happy to take time out from their career to focus on their health.

Being able to work with cancer, or while caring for someone with cancer, depends on several factors. These include the symptoms of the cancer, timing of treatment and any side effects, workplace flexibility, your financial situation, and what support and responsibilities you have. Thinking about these things can help you to work out your best options. You may need or want to keep working, to take a break, or to resign or retire. If you take a break, you may return to your job, change jobs, or even look for a new career that better suits your circumstances.

Although things may seem to be happening quickly, there is usually time to look at your options and make a well-informed decision. Try to avoid feeling rushed, and get any advice you need. If you have trouble deciding what to do, you could list the reasons for and against. Or talk to family, friends or a counsellor to help work out what you want. A workplace EAP can offer career advice. Call Cancer Council on 13 11 20 to connect with someone who’s been in a similar situation. You may want to talk to your general practitioner (GP) and cancer specialists too.

Work options to consider

When you are diagnosed with cancer, you may wonder if you can keep doing your job well. You may worry that if you can’t perform you may be forced to quit. But there are often other ways of working available to you. Your employer may be able to help you to continue to work with flexible options, or you may decide to take leave and return to work later on.

Continue working 

  • With support from your employer, you can try flexible working arrangements or make workplace adjustments.

Take time off

  • You may be able to use your paid leave entitlements, take unpaid time off, or claim on insurance.

Return to work

  • You may:
    • be able to go back to your existing job straightaway
    • need to ease back into a full workload, with some workplace changes and a return to work plan
    • want a new job due to changes in your abilities or priorities.

Retire from work

  • You may decide that retirement is the right option for you.

Working during treatment

If you are thinking about staying in your current job and working while having treatment, there are some things to consider. Cancer treatment will most likely affect your ability to do your job in some way. This doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to work, but you’ll probably need some flexibility to make things easier for you.

Workplaces tend to be more supportive of employees with cancer than they were in the past. One study showed that more than half of people with breast cancer who continued to work during treatment, stayed in the same job for 5 years after diagnosis. And a third were still with that same employer 9 years later. In most cases, employers want to keep their staff, so they will usually help you to keep working.

Talk to your employer about whether your current role needs to change, or if flexible working arrangements will help you manage treatment and side effects or how cancer affects you. You could set out any agreed changes in a plan (similar to a return to work plan). Let your employer know that you may need to change any plans you make as time or treatment goes on. This is because how well you feel, and your ability to work, can change over time.

Ask your treatment team whether they offer very early/late or weekend appointments, or chemotherapy from home, so that you can fit your  treatment sessions around work. Also check with your treatment team if there are any precautions you need to take in the workplace to protect yourself and others.

Cancer and its treatment may affect your ability to drive safely. Doctors must tell patients not to drive if they are a risk to themselves or others. As a guide, most people are told not to drive on the day of treatment, or if they are feeling unwell. Certain cancers also impact your ability to drive, and your doctor will let you know if this is the case for you. Consider if being unable to drive may affect your ability to work. Before you start driving again, get your doctor’s advice.

Reasons to work

Some people need to keep working for financial reasons. As well as earning you a wage, work can:

  • be enjoyable, stimulating and rewarding
  • give you a chance to socialise and decrease your sense of isolation
  • help you to maintain your sense of identity
  • develop your skills, creativity and knowledge
  • help you to continue to build a career or remain on your chosen pathway
  • keep you active and busy (which may have a positive effect) and get you out of the house
  • help you to stay in contact with friends and workmates who can offer regular support
  • provide a purpose and feeling of accomplishment
  • give you a sense of control at a time when cancer and treatment may make you feel that things are out of your control
  • provide a routine, which can be important to some people.

What to consider when making a decision about working

Cancer and treatment

  • How does the cancer, treatment or medicines you need to take affect you? Ask your doctor for information on this.
  • Have your physical or cognitive abilities (thinking, memory, concentration) changed?
  • How often will you have treatment?
  • Does your treatment schedule suit your work hours? If not, can it be changed?
  • Where will you have treatment? If you have to travel a long way for treatment, ask if you can have all or some of your treatment closer to home, or
    if you can use telehealth for some appointments.
  • What type of treatment will you have, what are the expected side effects, and how could they affect your ability to do your job?
  • Are there other treatments that would still be effective but might make it easier for you to keep working?
  • Will any side effects be temporary or long term?
  • Does your health care team have any advice about how other patients manage treatment and work?
  • Would it help to talk to someone who has had similar treatment to see how they managed? Call
    13 11 20 to find out about Cancer Connect, a free telephone peer support service.


  • Are there any aspects of your personal life that you also have to consider, such as children or other financial dependants?
  • Do you have any other caring responsibilities, such as elderly parents or other relatives needing care?
  • Can your family and friends provide practical and emotional support, such as taking you to appointments, helping around the house or cooking meals?
  • Will working give you a sense of normality and purpose, or help take your mind off the cancer?
  • Will the emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis make it hard for you to concentrate on work?
  • How will the stage and expected outcome of the cancer affect you?


  • Are you single or the only wage earner?
  • How much does your wage contribute to your family’s total income?
  • Do you have any leave that would allow you to take paid time off?
  • Is taking unpaid leave an option?
  • Do you have savings or insurance that you can access?
  • Does your employer have any insurance that you can access?
  • Are you able to gain access to your superannuation or does your fund have insurance you are eligible for?
  • How will reducing your hours or taking time off affect your standard of living?
  • What extra expenses, such as medicines or travel for treatment, can you expect?
  • How can you manage your usual debts or bills, such as mortgage and car repayments?
  • Do you need professional advice to help make decisions about your finances?


  • Do you enjoy your job?
  • Are you following specific career goals? Will time off impact your career pathway?
  • Have you talked to your manager or the company’s HR department about your situation?
  • Is your manager supportive? Can your workplace offer some flexible ways of working, such as working from home?
  • Is your job very demanding?
  • Are you physically and emotionally able to work?
  • Could your role be modified to make your job easier?
  • Would your workmates be a source of support?
  • How much do other staff members depend on you and the work you do?
  • If you have made a workers compensation claim, will you be entitled to receive weekly compensation to cover the loss of income if you stop working?

Taking time off

Some people find it difficult to work when they have cancer, or during treatment and recovery, and decide to take a break. Sometimes they decide straightaway, other times they may work for a while but then find it too physically or emotionally difficult to continue.

Discuss your leave options with your employer. You may want to use paid leave or ask for unpaid time off. If you decide to take time off, you may want to set up a system for staying in touch with your employer so you know what is happening at work. If you take extended leave, speak to your manager or HR department. Let them know that you would like to return to work when your health improves.


Some people stop work completely when they are diagnosed with cancer. You may feel that this is the right choice for you. It’s natural to have mixed feelings about retirement. How you feel may depend on your age, and what plans you had before the cancer diagnosis. Some people feel a sense of loss and others worry they’ll be bored. It may help to talk about it with friends, family, a hospital social worker, spiritual leader, work EAP or other counsellor, or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.

Most people take time to adjust to retirement. Making plans for dealing with how it affects your sense of self, finances and relationships can make the change easier. Centrelink has financial information support officers and aged care support officers, who may help. Some people find it helpful to do volunteer work as part of moving into retirement.

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed June 2023 by the following expert content reviewers: Brooke Russell, Principal Occupational Therapist, WA Cancer Occupational Therapy, WA; Bianca Alessi, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Dr Prunella Blinman, Medical Oncologist, Concord Cancer Centre, Concord Repatriation General Hospital, NSW; James Chirgwin, Physiotherapist, The Wesley Hospital, QLD; Danielle Curnoe, Consumer; Simon Gates, Barrister, Tasmanian Bar, TAS; Justin Hargreaves, Medical Oncology Nurse Practitioner, Bendigo Health Cancer Centre, VIC; Kaylene Jacques, Director, People and Communications, Cancer Council NSW; Alex Kelly, Senior People Attraction Advisor, Human Resources, Allianz Australia Insurance, NSW; Legal reviewer; Georgina Lohse, Social Worker, GV Health, VIC; Lesley McQuire, Consumer, Cancer Voices NSW.

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