Returning to work after cancer treatment

Returning to your job or looking for a new one can be a challenge after cancer. Find out about your rights, how to talk to your employer, and how to look for work.

  • Going back to work after cancer is a big change and it’s normal to feel a mix of excitement and nerves
  • As a young person who’s experienced cancer, you have rights in law which can help you get what you need in order to do your job
  • Talking to your employer can help them help you through something called reasonable adjustments
  • Your rights protect you when looking for a new job too, although you don’t have to give them all the details at interview

Going back to work, with Emily

Listen to how Emily’s place of work helped her to do her job once things changed after her cancer diagnosis and treatment.

When to go back to work after cancer

Going back to work if you’ve had to take time off for cancer treatment can feel like a big step forward. But it’s important not to rush it – and not to expect too much of yourself, too soon.

Where reasonable, your employer has a duty to make changes to help you do your job during and after treatment (as long as you’ve told them about your diagnosis). So when you feel ready, talk to your boss, your doctors or your clinical nurse specialist about what’s possible, and ease yourself back in gently.

Your rights as a young person with cancer in employment

As someone with cancer, you are protected by the Equality Act (England, Scotland and Wales) or the Disability Discrimination Act (Northern Ireland). That means that your employer has to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to make sure you’re able to work safely.

You might not feel like you’re disabled, but these laws are in place to help protect and help you be able to live your life.

Reasonable adjustments can include things like giving you time off to go to hospital or doctor’s appointments, giving you extra breaks and letting you return to work gradually.

Legally, you don’t have to tell your employer if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer. But if you don’t tell them, they don’t have any obligation to make reasonable adjustments to help you.

Once you’ve told your employer about your diagnosis, it’s also illegal for them to discriminate against you. So think carefully if you’re not planning on letting them know.

Find out more about the Equality Act from the government and reasonable adjustments from the Human Rights Commission.

Macmillan Cancer Support also have some really helpful info on reasonable adjustments (PDF), and a directory of organisations who could help you with questions about your workplace.

Tips for going back to work after cancer

You might find you get tired more easily at first or sometimes struggle to concentrate. Try not to worry – that’s totally normal. Here are some ideas for how to ease yourself back in:

Go back part time

You could talk to your boss about working fewer days or shorter shifts.

Take your breaks

Make sure you don’t miss them – and relax when you have them.

Adjust your routine

Ask if you can arrange your day around the times you feel at your best.

Be honest if you’re struggling

Your boss might be obliged to make reasonable adjustments to help you, like trying some of the things above.

Go easy on yourself

It takes time to recover from cancer and cancer treatment, so listen to your body and don’t stress if you can’t do everything you used to straightaway.

The people you work with will probably be curious about your treatment and how you’re feeling, so it’s worth thinking about how much you want to let them know. You might want to talk to everyone together, or you could speak to a few people and ask them to let others know. Or you might not feel ready to share much yet – that’s ok, you don’t have to.

Looking for work

Searching for a new job is tricky at the best of times. After you’ve had cancer it can seem even trickier. But if you’re qualified and physically able to work, there’s no reason that having had cancer should stop you landing the job you want.

In fact, there are very few reasons that an employer can question your health in an interview. It’s OK for employers to ask about your health to check if you’re able to complete a task that’s fundamental to the role, or to make sure the recruitment process isn’t discriminating against anyone, or to help them take ‘positive action’ (which might mean, for instance, improving their recruitment of people with disabilities).

But it’s up to you how much you tell any potential employer. Try and resist any temptation to be dishonest, though – false answers have a habit of coming back to haunt you in the future.

And remember that, while you might not think of yourself as disabled, the Equality Act and the Discrimination Act consider everyone with cancer to be disabled. So if you’re asked if you’re disabled, you should say yes, even if it doesn’t feel quite right.

Look out for the ‘positive about disabled people’ symbol on job ads. If you meet the basic conditions for the job, you’ll definitely be asked in for an interview.

My Plus Students is an organisation that offers specialist careers advice to students who have a disability or long-term health condition (including cancer). You can register with them for jobhunting tips, legal advice and information about companies who are committed to employing people with disabilities.

Looking for info about working during coronavirus? Check out our coronavirus info.

Read other young people’s experiences of cancer and work below, and through Nabeela’s story from Blood Cancer UK.