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Making decisions about working

You may feel overwhelmed by all the decisions you have to make after a diagnosis of cancer and during treatment. Weighing up whether to keep working, have a break, resign or retire may be difficult.

This section discusses the options you have and the factors you may consider when making a decision. Try to avoid feeling rushed. Although things may seem to be happening quickly, there is usually time to make a well-informed decision.

If you are having trouble deciding what is important to you, make a list of reasons for and against. It may help to talk to family, friends or a counsellor to decide what you want. Or call Cancer Council 13 11 20 to see if they can connect you with a person who’s experienced a similar situation. You may also want to seek input from your general practitioner (GP) and cancer specialists.

Reasons to work

Some people need to keep working for financial reasons, but work can also:

  • be enjoyable, stimulating and rewarding
  • give you a chance to socialise and decrease your sense of isolation
  • help you maintain a sense of identity
  • develop your skills, creativity and knowledge
  • keep you busy and get you out of the house
  • keep you in contact with friends and workmates who can offer regular support
  • provide a purpose and feeling of accomplishment
  • provide a routine, which is important to some people.

Employment options – Working during treatment

Cancer treatment will most likely affect your ability to do your job in some way. This doesn’t mean you will be unable to do your job, but you will probably need some flexibility to make work easier.

Discuss with your employer whether your current role needs to be modified or if flexible working arrangements will help you manage your treatment and side effects. Consider setting out any agreed changes in a plan (similar to a return to work plan).

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

Cancer and its treatment may affect your ability to drive safely. Doctors have a duty to advise patients not to drive if they are a risk to themselves or others. If you are unable to drive, this may affect your ability to work. Before you start driving again, seek your doctor’s advice.

See Coping with side effects for some tips on managing some common side effects of treatment.

Some people find working during treatment and recovery difficult and decide to take a break. They may make this decision straightaway or after returning to work and finding it too physically and emotionally difficult.

Discuss your leave options with your employer. You can use paid leave entitlements 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 decide to take extended leave, speak to your manager or human resources department. Let them know you would like to return to work when your health improves.

Check your insurance

If you have disability or income protection insurance, you may be able to receive a portion of your income while you are unable to work. You might have taken out a separate policy, or it may be attached to your superannuation or provided by your employer. If you are thinking of resigning from your job, check your insurance coverage first, because leaving work may affect your entitlements.

Download our booklet ‘Cancer and Your Finances’


Some people give up work completely when they are diagnosed with cancer. This might be the right choice for you if you are already close to retirement or if the cancer is advanced.

It is natural to have mixed feelings about retirement. How you feel may depend on your age and your plans before the cancer diagnosis. Some people feel a sense of loss and others worry they’ll be bored. You may find it helps to talk about these responses with your friends and family, hospital social worker, spiritual leader or counsellor, or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.

Most people take time to adjust to retirement. Making plans for dealing with the impact on your sense of self, finances and relationships can make the change easier. Some people find it helpful to get involved with volunteer work as part of moving into retirement.

What to consider when making a decision about working

  • What type of treatment will you have?
  • Are there other treatments that would still be effective but might make it easier to keep working?
  • How often will you have treatment?
  • Does your treatment schedule suit your work hours? If not, can it be changed?
  • What are the potential side effects and how might they affect your job?
  • Will the 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.
  • How much of your family’s total income is made up of your wage?
  • 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?
  • How will reducing your work hours or taking time off affect your standard of living?
  • What additional expenses, such as medicines or travel for treatment, do you expect?
  • How can you manage non-cancer-related debts or bills, such as mortgage and car repayments?
  • Do you need professional advice to help you make decisions that affect your finances?
  • 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 transporting you to appointments, helping around the house or providing meals?
  • Will working give you a sense of normality 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?
  • Do you enjoy your job?
  • Are you pursuing specific career goals?
  • Have you discussed your situation with your manager or human resources department?
  • Is your manager supportive? Can your workplace offer some flexible working practices (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?

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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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