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Returning to work after treatment

It’s natural to feel nervous if you’re returning to work after you’ve been away for a while, after treatment ends, or once you feel you can manage work and your ongoing treatment. If you are returning to an existing job, you may want to talk to your employer about making a return to work plan.

You may be looking for a new job because of changes to your ability or priorities. Cancer Council can provide you with information about the emotional and  practical aspects of living well after cancer.

Download our booklet ‘Living Well After Cancer’

Going back to work

You may be worried about how your employer and co-workers will react, and if there will be questions about your ability to perform your usual role. You may think about returning to work gradually, increasing your hours and duties as you become stronger, or you may feel ready to resume your old workload right away.

All employers are legally required to make changes (known as reasonable adjustments) to accommodate the effects of an employee’s cancer diagnosis. This may mean, for example, that your employer allows you to return to work in stages, is flexible with start and finish times, gives you time off to attend medical appointments, or provides ergonomic work tools.

Ask your GP, cancer specialist or an occupational physician about whether you are able to undertake your usual tasks. They may ask for an assessment of your function by an occupational therapist to help make a decision. Your employer can ask for a medical examination to show you are fit for work or to identify any changes they need to make to accommodate your needs. However, an employer doesn’t have the right to request full unrestricted access to your medical records.

If you are unable to carry out your previous role, your employer may offer a program to train you for another role. Your employer only has a duty to offer you a different role if the cancer is work-related.

Work Assist is a free government program. It helps people in danger of losing their job because of illness, injury or disability to stay with their current employer. Call 1800 464 800 or visit Job Access for more information. If you have life insurance or income protection insurance, check if it includes rehabilitation cover to help you return to work.

Making a return to work plan

When you are ready to return to work, contact your employer about creating a written return to work plan. This is a document prepared by you, your doctor and your employer (or a rehabilitation professional) outlining your approach to returning to work.

It may also be helpful to develop a similar plan if you keep working during treatment.

The plan is tailored to your specific work situation and health needs, and may include:

  • your job title and location
  • approximate date of return to work
  • time period of the plan
  • your goals and abilities
  • a summary of duties
  • start, finish and break times
  • any specific restrictions or recommendations from your health care team (e.g. wearing a mask or social distancing, time limits for sitting, must wear a lymphoedema sleeve)
  • any short-term changes to your terms of employment (e.g. leave, wages) as a result of your rehabilitation
  • any training needs that could help you
  • any potential triggers within your role that could create additional stress, harm or prevent recovery
  • details of the supervisors or the managers who are responsible for monitoring progress of the return to work plan
  • dates of regular meetings to discuss progress and changes to the plan if needed.

To see a sample return to work plan, download Cancer Council NSW’s Job Seeking Workbook. For more information about return to work plans, visit Job Access.

Where to find out more

Your state or territory WorkSafe or workers compensation authority also offers information and advice about workplace safety, workers  compensation, worker assist programs, and return to work:

ACT: Worksafe ACT

NSW: State Insurance Regulatory Authority

NT: NT WorkSafe

QLD: Workplace Health and Safety Queensland

SA: ReturnToWorkSA

TAS: WorkSafe Tasmania

VIC: WorkSafe Victoria

WA: WorkCoverWA

Commonwealth: Comcare

Changing jobs

Cancer can make you rethink your career goals and work values. Some people won’t return to the same job because of changes in ability or length of time away. Others decide a new job is an opportunity for a fresh start, or that they want a less stressful or more meaningful job.

Finding a new job

Before looking for a new job, you may want to ask yourself:

  • Does my illness mean I need to look for a new type of work?
  • What abilities, skills and experience can I offer a new employer?
  • Will I need to update my skills or education?
  • Is there a market for someone with my skills in my chosen field?
  • Would I be happy with a lower-level position or fewer hours?
  • Can I afford to live on a lower salary?
  • How would I manage the stress of a change in employment?
  • Does my confidence need a boost?
  • Will I need more support (e.g. new equipment or extra breaks)?
  • How many hours a week am I able to work?
  • Do I want or need to tell a new employer about my cancer treatment?

Think about ways of working that may suit you, such as job-sharing, volunteering, self-employment, part-time or agency work. You could talk to co-workers and referees who know your work and can be honest about your skills. Or contact a career counsellor, or a JobAccess adviser on 1800 464 800. Cancer Council may be able to refer you to a recruitment professional for support. Call 13 11 20 to find out more.

Preparing for a job interview

  • Consider seeing a career counsellor or social worker to practise job interviews. They can tell you your strengths, skills and your abilities.
  • Think about what you may say if asked about a gap in your work history or résumé (CV). Some people write “career break” rather than leaving the time unexplained.
  • Keep explanations general and straightforward – don’t tell a long-winded story. You might want to say that you took some time off for personal reasons.
  • If you are asked a direct question about your health history, consider answering: “I have no health problems that would affect me performing this job” or “I have medical clearance to perform this type of work”.
  • If you have an obvious physical impairment, consider letting the interview panel know how you are able to perform the specific job responsibilities.
  • It is illegal to ask any question that may be seen as discriminatory, including about someone’s health. But an employer can ask if there are any support or accessibility needs they would have to meet to support you in the role.
  • Being up-front with your employer can make it easier to negotiate any necessary adjustments to the workplace or time off for medical appointments.
  • If you don’t get the job and you believe it is because of the cancer diagnosis and treatment, you can complain to the employer, the discrimination agency in your state or territory, the Australian Human Rights Commission or the Fair Work Ombudsman. However, these types of complaints are often unsuccessful as it’s hard to prove why you weren’t hired.

Telling a potential employer

You may want to tell a new employer that you have had cancer, but you don’t have to unless it impacts your ability to do the job. It is illegal for an employer to discriminate against you because of a disability, which includes cancer. You only need to tell the employer about:

  • anything that may affect your ability to perform tasks that are an essential part of the job (e.g. if you can lift heavy boxes or drive a car)
  • any health and safety risks for yourself or others
  • any adjustments you may need to help you do your job (e.g. ergonomic tools or a height-adjustable bench).

There will probably be a gap in your résumé (CV) if you did not work during cancer treatment. Be prepared for a potential employer to ask about this. It’s common for people to have breaks in their employment history because of travel, having children or other personal reasons, so the employer may not ask about it.

Your employer does not need to know details about your personal life unless it is relevant to the job. This also applies for any employment forms that ask for health information. In this case, you only need to write down anything that may affect you ability to do your job, as outlined above.

Other options

If you are unable to return to your previous job after treatment:

  • you may be able to attend a rehabilitation or retraining program to prepare you for another job
  • you may be eligible for a payout if you have disability insurance or income protection insurance
  • you may consider retiring
  • you may want to access your superannuation early if you are eligible
  • you could contact your super fund to see if you have any insurance
  • you may be able to get support through the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) if your disability is permanent and significant; for  information, visit their website or call 1800 800 110
  • visit Centrelink or call them on 132 717 to see if you are eligible for the Disability Support Pension or other payment.

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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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