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Key questions about cancer and work

Will I be able to work?

Most people of working age who are diagnosed with cancer wonder how it will affect their ability to work. In many cases, cancer will affect a person’s work life. For example, some of your treatment appointments will probably be scheduled during business hours.

Whether you are able to work during treatment will depend on:

  • the type and stage of cancer
  • the type of treatment you have and its side effects
  • how you feel during treatment
  • the kind of work you do.

Discuss the demands of your job with your health care team. Ask them how much time off you are likely to need or whether you will be able to work throughout your treatment and recovery.

Your decision will also depend on the support and flexibility of your employer. Most people who want to keep working during treatment are able to do so in some capacity. Some people manage by adjusting their work hours – they may miss a couple of days here and there or work part-time. Others choose to take a break or retire.

Each person’s situation is different – not everyone with the same type of cancer will make the same decision about work. It’s best to do what feels right for you. 

Should I tell my employer?

Telling your employer that you have cancer is a personal decision. While there is no law that says you have to share the diagnosis with your employer, you do have some obligations. You must tell your employer about anything that will affect your ability to do the essential parts of your job, or could reasonably cause a health and safety risk for yourself or other people. For example, some medicines you are taking may affect your ability or safety at work.

You may decide to wait and only tell your employer if the cancer starts to affect your ability to do your job. Or you may decide to inform them right away so that you can work together to plan how to deal with the impacts on you and your workplace. Keeping the diagnosis secret may cause you unnecessary stress trying to cover it up. Being open with your employer may:

  • let you discuss the support you need and any changes that could be made to your work
  • help you find out about any benefits you can access, such as additional leave or income protection insurance
  • make it easier to organise flexible working arrangements or take time off work for appointments or treatment
  • reduce the risk that any impacts on your work will be seen as poor work performance.

If you want to keep the diagnosis to yourself, remember that information you share on social media websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, may be visible to your employer and co-workers.

What are my rights regarding privacy and disclosure?

What and how much you tell your employer will depend on your preferences, your workplace and the kind of relationship you have. You may want to let your employer know whether you:

  • will be able to continue working (and for how long)
  • will be able to perform all of your job duties
  • want other people in your workplace to know
  • need to take time off work (and when you are likely to return)
  • need any workplace adjustments

You may need to talk with your health care team before you can answer these questions. Some answers may not be clear until you’ve started treatment. Remember that you do not need to share all the details of your illness with your employer. You only need to tell them about anything that may affect your ability to work or cause a health and safety risk for yourself or others.

Talking to your employer

  • You may feel more confident talking to your employer if you practise what you want to say with your family and friends.
  • Decide beforehand how much information you want to share. Prepare some notes so you don’t forget anything.
  • Consider taking a support person with you to help with the discussion.
  • Request a meeting in a quiet, private place where you won’t be interrupted. Allow plenty of time for your discussion.
  • Come to the meeting with some ideas about your needs and how any impact on the workplace can be dealt with.
  • Reassure your employer of your commitment to your job.
  • Be prepared for your employer to bring up your working arrangements, e.g. they may ask if you want to change your work schedule. If you don’t know, say that you need time to think about your options.
  • Keep notes about the discussion. Write down any agreed changes to your working arrangements for you and your employer to sign.
  • Don’t feel that you have to agree on everything in the first meeting. You may both need to get more information.
  • Refer your employer to Cancer Council’s online Workplace Fact Sheets for employers and workplaces.

There is no wrong or right answer – it is a personal decision that depends on what you want. Sharing details about the diagnosis and treatment may make you feel uncomfortable, or you may not want to answer questions. You may be concerned your co-workers will treat you differently.

You can talk to your employer about whether or not you plan to tell your co-workers. Points to consider include:

  • the types of relationships you have with other staff
  • whether your workplace is collaborative, friendly and supportive, or distrustful and negative
  • who you feel you can trust with personal matters
  • the impact on team unity if you tell some people and not others
  • how your workplace has dealt with other employees with cancer or other serious illnesses
  • whether your co-workers need to know what to do if you become unwell at work.

It can be difficult to hide your illness if you work in a close-knit team. You may be away from work for some time. The cancer or treatment side effects may also have a visible impact on your behaviour or appearance. Your co-workers may wonder about these changes. Some may even become resentful if they think that you aren’t doing your fair share of work and don’t understand why.

Sharing information about your cancer with close workmates gives them an opportunity to express their concern for your wellbeing and discuss ways they can help you. 

Talking to your co-workers

  • You don’t need to tell everyone, especially if you work in a large organisation. You may only want to inform your immediate team members or close workmates.
  • Decide beforehand how much information you want to share.
  • Find a comfortable and private place, and set aside time to talk.
  • Think about how you’ll handle different reactions. Some co-workers might react with understanding, others may feel uncomfortable or afraid.
    Planning ahead will help you cope with different responses.
  • Let your co-workers know about the kind of support and help you need, and how this may change over time. It’s okay to let them know that you
    don’t want to hear about other people’s cancer experiences.
  • If you feel uncomfortable about telling your co-workers yourself, ask your manager, a close workmate or the human resources manager to pass on
    the news for you.
  • You may find that news about your diagnosis spreads around the office. Let your co-workers know up-front if you would prefer the news to be kept
    confidential. If you are upset, talk to your co-workers or ask your manager to get involved.

In general, discrimination in the workplace due to cancer and treatment is unlawful. This includes stopping you taking leave, offering you a more junior role or dismissing you, for a reason related to your cancer. If you are unsure of how your employer will react, it’s good to know your rights and your employer’s responsibilities.


Under Australian law, cancer is considered a disability. If you cannot perform your usual work duties, the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992 requires your employer to make changes to the workplace so you can keep working. These changes are known as reasonable adjustments.

An employer can refuse your request to make changes only if the changes would cause unjustifiable hardship to their business or, in some cases, on reasonable business grounds.

Changes could be to your duties, workspace or hours, and they could be temporary or long term. You and your employer can discuss ideas for possible changes. Your health care team may also have useful suggestions. Reasonable adjustments could include:

  • extra breaks because of pain or fatigue, or to attend medical appointments
  • temporary duties as agreed, reduced hours, flexitime, working from home, part-time work or a gradual return to work
  • changes to the workspace such as a more suitable chair, height-adjustable desk or counter, or ergonomic work tools
  • providing new technology, such as voice-activated software, telephone headsets, a hearing loop or screen-reading software
  • setting you up to use the National Relay Service on your computer, tablet, mobile phone or telephone typewriter (TTY). This service helps people who have a hearing or speech impairment to make phone calls.

Your employer can get advice, financial support and practical assistance to help support you from JobAccess, an Australian Government service.

Many employers also have employee support systems, such as rehabilitation and retraining programs, or an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that offers free, confidential counselling. Another option may be a buddy or mentoring system with someone else in your workplace who has had cancer. Your co-workers can offer advice or help you liaise with management. How any buddy or mentoring system is arranged is up to you and your employer.

About 5000 people are diagnosed with work-related cancers each year. Work-related cancers can result from exposure to sunlight, toxic dusts and chemicals (including asbestos, heavy metals, diesel engine exhaust, solvents and pesticides), and ionising radiation.

If you have been diagnosed with a work-related cancer, you may be entitled to workers compensation. It’s important to get legal advice from a lawyer who specialises in workers compensation matters. To find a lawyer, contact The Law Society of South Australia. To make a claim, notify your WorkSafe SA about your cancer and why you think it is work-related. A time limit may apply.


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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed November 2019 by the following expert content reviewers: Kerryann White, Manager, People and Culture, Cancer Council SA; Nicola Martin, Principal, McCabe Curwood, NSW; Jane Auchettl, Coordinator, Education and Training Programs, Cancer Council Victoria; Craig Brewer, Consumer; Alana Cochrane, Human Resources Business Partner, Greater Bank Newcastle, NSW; Shona Gates, Senior Social Worker, North West Cancer Centre, North West Regional Hospital, TAS; Dianne Head, Cancer Nurse Coordinator, Metastatic Breast Cancer, Crown Princess Mary Cancer Centre Westmead, NSW; Alex Kelly, Talent Acquisition Business Partner, Aon, NSW; Prof Bogda Koczwara AM, Senior Staff Specialist, Department of Medical Oncology, Flinders Medical Centre, SA; Sharyn McGowan, Occupational Therapist, Bendigo Health, VIC; Jeanne Potts, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Michelle Smerdon, Legal and Financial Support Services Manager, Cancer Council NSW.

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