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Working through cancer treatment or returning to work after treatment is a very personal decision. You might feel that working is a financial necessity for you. Perhaps is marks a return to normal life or brings a sense of control at an otherwise uncertain time. You might feel you need to focus your energy on treatment and recovery. There are no right or wrong answers, so you must do what is right for you. 

Working through cancer treatment or returning to work

Woman on the phoneYou’re going to need to take some time off work, for surgery and for chemotherapy. You don’t have to tell your employer that you are being treated for ovarian cancer but with lots of appointments and the impact on your energy, it will make it easier for them to understand your situation and support you if they know.

Ask your CNS or oncologist about how your treatment might affect your working life. This is important information that can be used by you and your employer to come up with a sensible work plan. You can ask questions like:

  • How often will I need to have treatment?

  • How long will each treatment take?

  • How will this affect my ability to work?

It’s useful to add some extra recovery time into your work plan, as it is difficult to know in advance how treatment might affect you. You can always build up your working hours or work load if you are feeling well.

You can watch Julie's top tip for returning to work (opens in new window or tab) or watch Vicky share her experience of returning to work below:

Staying in touch

If you decide not to work through your cancer treatment, you can still keep in touch with your colleagues through regular updates on relevant topics. You may decide that you prefer not to hear from work when you are trying to recover. Do what feels right for you.

It is important that your employer is flexible in their approach as your needs will change from initial treatment to returning to work and managing possible side effects. Your experience will also have an emotional impact and you may find yourself reacting to things differently or feeling less sociable. If you feel that this is happening and affecting your work, try to be open with your employer so that they can adjust things to help.

Who to talk to

Many people prefer to discuss issues with someone independent from their actual team or management. If your workplace has an Occupational Health or Human Resources department then these are the ideal people to discuss your situation with. They can then represent your needs to the relevant members of staff.

Your rights

Everyone living with or beyond cancer is protected under the Equalities Act 2010 (in England, Scotland and Wales) or the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (in Northern Ireland) against unfair treatment in the workplace, both now and in the future.

It doesn’t matter if you have symptoms or not and the law still applies when you have finished treatment and have been discharged from hospital. Your employer is required by law to make reasonable adjustments to help you work through your treatment or return to work after treatment.

It also protects you from discrimination by future employers.

What are reasonable adjustments?

There is a long list of possibilities but the more common ones include:

  • adjusting the premises to make them safer and more accessible
  • allowing time off for appointments and recovery
  • allocating some of your duties to a colleague or employing a support worker
  • adjusting redundancy criteria so that it does not discriminate
  • altering work hours and/or allowing you to work from home

What is or isn’t reasonable will depend on the nature of your work. The essential thing is that your employer makes considerate alterations to your work role where needed, and that you feel supported and respected by them throughout a difficult time.

If you are self-employed or work for a small organisation


Moira's story

"Telling my family was one of the hardest things about having cancer. My children – grown up and in their thirties – were in complete and utter shocked silence when I told them."

If you are self-employed or work for a small business or organisation, it may well be up to you to handle the communications and set up a return that is realistic for you. Approaching organisations such as Citizens Advice can help ensure that you are aware of any rights or support available to you.

What if there is a problem?

If you feel that your employer or colleague is making unreasonable demands you can get advice from a number of organisations:


Financial issues

There are different types of benefit entitlements available to you depending on the impact your cancer has had and your financial circumstances. Many people are unaware of the financial help and support that is available to them during this time. Macmillan Cancer Support has a benefits helpline staffed by trained advisors and can be reached on 0808 808 00 00 and have detailed information on their website.

Find out more

What happens next

This content is primarily taken from What happens next? Our expert guide answers your questions following a diagnosis, providing information on everything from treatment to taking care of yourself, and advice on where to find support in the months ahead.

The information on this page is approved by the Information Standard scheme to ensure that it provides accurate and high-quality information.

Information standrads

Last reviewed: November 2016
Next review: October 2019