Returning to work after cancer treatment

Going back to work or looking for a new job can be difficult after cancer treatment. Find out more about your rights, how to talk to your employer, and how to look for work here. 

  • It’s normal to feel a mixture of emotions when you’re going back to work after cancer  
  • 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 
  • Your rights protect you when looking for a new job too, although you don’t have to give them all the details at interview 

When should I go back to work after cancer treatment?

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 to make changes to help you do your job during and after treatment. However, it’s important to remember that they only have to do this if you’ve told them about your diagnosis. It’s completely up to you who you want to share your diagnosis with so you should only talk about it if you feel comfortable to.   

If and when you feel ready, talk to your boss, your doctors or your clinical nurse specialist about what’s possible, and ease yourself back in to work gently. 

What are my 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 having 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. It’s important you understand this if you don’t want to let them know. If you’re not sure whether you want to talk to your employer about this, it might help to chat through your options with family and friends, or with your care team.   

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

Tips for going back to work after cancer

When you go back to work 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 or have a phased return 

You could talk to your boss about working fewer days or shorter shifts. You could ask for a phased return – this means you might go back a couple of days a week to start with and slowly build back up to full time.  

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. You might prefer to start early and finish early, or if you struggle getting up in the morning you might want to start a bit later.   

Be honest if you’re struggling 

You may want to organise some regular catch ups with your manager when you go back to work so you can keep track of your progress. This could be useful if you realise you’re finding particular things difficult and want to make some adaptations. Being honest with your manager should mean that they can support you in the best way for you.   

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 might have questions about your treatment and how you’re feeling. Before you go back to work 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 anything 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.  

There are very few reasons that an employer can ask questions about 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).  

It’s completely up to you how much you tell your current or any future employers. If you’re not comfortable talking about your diagnosis you should also try to avoid being dishonest about it. This can make things difficult in the future if you do want to request any reasonable adjustments.   

And remember that, while you might not think of yourself as disabled, anyone who currently has cancer, or has had cancer in the past is protected by the Equality Act and the Discrimination Act. 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.  

Who can help?  

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 job-hunting tips, legal advice and information about companies who are committed to employing people with disabilities. 

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