Work and cancer

Talking about your cancer may be difficult, especially at work. Some people may worry that their employer will make them redundant or discriminate against them. However, it's important to know that people affected by cancer are protected against discrimination by the Equality Act 2010.

Talking to your employer can also help them to make changes that will support you during treatment. They can help and support you in a number of different ways. They may make work adjustments, give you time off and tell you about your sick pay entitlements.

Before making any reasonable adjustments, your employer may ask to contact a medical professional to find out how to best support you. You will need to give them permission first.

In addition to talking to your line manager, you may wish to discuss your situation with your HR manager or your trade union.

Working during treatment

It can be difficult to decide whether to carry on working during cancer treatment. You may need to keep working for financial reasons, especially if you are self-employed. Some people also decide to carry on working to focus their attention on something else. However, your ability to work will depend on your health, the type of treatment you have and your occupation.

Taking time off work

Cancer and the side effects of treatment can be intense. Some people may be able to continue working through treatment. Other people may have to stop.

Under equality laws, your employer should give you a reasonable amount of time off to attend hospital appointments. This may not be paid time off unless your employment contract states so.

If you’re an employee and cancer treatment makes you unable to work, you will usually get Statutory Sick Pay. Your employment contract may also allow you to claim Occupational or Company Sick Pay.

If you are temporarily unable to work, there may be other benefits you are eligible for.

A welfare rights adviser can give you more information. You can contact a welfare rights adviser by calling the Macmillan Support Line free on 0808 808 00 00 from 9am to 5pm.


If you’re self-employed you may worry you won’t be able to keep the money coming in or that you’ll have to close your business. If you and your family rely on the income from your business, you may feel under pressure.

Support is available from different organisations and you may be eligible for benefits you don’t know about. You can find out about those sources of support by phoning the Macmillan Support Line on 0808 808 00 00

Returning to work

After your cancer treatment is over, you may agree a flexible return-to-work-plan with your employer.

The plan might include changes to your hours, your duties, or your workplace. Depending on your condition, you may have to change parts of your job like driving or operating machinery. Your employer is required to make reasonable adjustments to assist your return. This could include changing your requirements, making sure you have suitable access, or providing you with different tools.

It’s also important to consider your financial situation. Your mortgage or credit agreements may have changed during your treatment. If you were receiving benefits, returning to work may cause some of them to stop. There are many places to go for advice and guidance around financial issues. You can call the Macmillan Support Line to talk to a financial guide.

Giving up work

Some people choose to give up work completely when they're diagnosed with cancer. This allows them to focus on the cancer, its treatment and other aspects of their lives.

If work has been the major focus of your life, it can be difficult to adjust to not working. It may help to talk to someone about your feelings, such as a close family member or friend. You may find it helpful to talk to someone outside your social circle, such as a counsellor.

If you give up work, you also give up the rights associated with your employment, such as occupational sick pay, Statutory Sick Pay, pension rights and occupation-linked private medical insurance.

If you want to take early retirement on health grounds or for personal reasons, it’s essential to take advice from your pension administrator. You may be able to take early payment of your pension on the grounds of ill health, but this will depend on the rules of your own particular pension scheme. You may have several options to consider.

Getting advice from an independent financial adviser about the various options open to you may help you get a higher income from your pension.

Early retirement is always a big decision, particularly if you’re making this choice because of your health. The Macmillan Financial Guidance Service can help you understand the options available to you. They can also help you with the questions to think about before you make a final decision. This is a free service. You can contact them on 0808 808 00 00 from 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday.

Looking for work

If you’re looking for work, there are rules about what an employer can ask about your health and how they use this information.

An employer can ask you for information about your health after they’ve offered you a job. If on the basis of this information, they then decide to withdraw the job offer, they’ll need to make sure the reason they’re doing so isn’t discriminatory.

It’s still acceptable to ask questions during the recruitment process about a person’s health for the following reasons:

  • to make sure they’re not discriminating against anyone in their recruitment process
  • to conduct positive action (for example, for a company to improve their recruitment of people with disabilities)
  • to enquire whether reasonable adjustments are needed for the recruitment process
  • to establish whether the applicant will be able to carry out a function that’s fundamental to the role

Disability-related questions mustn’t be used to discriminate against a disabled person. An employer is only allowed to ask questions about health or disability if they are, or may be, relevant to the person’s ability to carry out particular functions of the job.

Many people with cancer don’t consider themselves to be disabled, and if they’re asked in general terms whether they consider themselves disabled they’ll say ‘no’. However, if you’re asked by your employer if you’re disabled, you should say ‘yes’ for the purposes of the Equality Act and the Disability Discrimination Act. This is because everyone with cancer is covered by these acts and the term ‘disabled’ has a specific meaning under the acts.

Last updated:
12 April 2023

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