Cancer And Work: 3 Mistaken Assumptions

Written by Barbara Wilson from Working With Cancer

The statistics are frightening: half of us will face a cancer diagnosis during our lifetime. In the UK, there are almost a million people of working age living with cancer, so the continuing and very welcome increase in survival rates (in the UK, taking all cancers together, survival for 10 or more years has doubled from 24% to over 50%) means that it’s becoming more likely that employees will have colleagues facing a cancer diagnosis, undergoing treatment, and returning to work following treatment. Some will have an advanced or secondary/metastatic diagnosis and will also be working in some capacity.

Given all of this, it’s essential that organisations know how to help employees with a cancer diagnosis. Not just because it’s the right thing to do – which it is – but also because the consequences of getting it wrong can have significant financial and legal consequences and significantly damage an organisation’s reputation.

However, in the course of the training, coaching and general support we provide to employers and cancer patients, we see time and time again that cancer is misunderstood and best practice is ignored – maybe not at Head office level but often in the course of day-to-day management interactions. For example, far too many line managers are unaware that when someone is diagnosed with cancer, they are classed as disabled and are therefore protected by the Equality Act 2010, (or the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in Northern Ireland) not just during but after treatment and for the rest of their life.

Too many employees with cancer are left feeling that they can’t or shouldn’t be working, which can cause a huge strain on top of coping with the cancer itself.

In my experience employers almost always want to do the right thing. The problems start with misunderstanding and poor communication. So, what are the most common mistakes that employers and colleagues make when managing and supporting someone with cancer?

1. People cannot work during cancer treatment

The truth is that most people can work not only after, but sometimes during, cancer treatment, even those who are terminally ill. Many people want to keep working if they can – of course for many it’s necessary from a financial perspective, but beyond that work represents normality and a welcome break from all thing’s cancer.

However according to a Macmillan survey, although 80% of people who were working when diagnosed with cancer thought it important to continue working, 47% had to give up work or change their roles as a result of their diagnosis. This really doesn’t need to be the case. HR teams should be advising managers and their teams on the adjustments they can make and the flexibility they can offer to help someone stay at work – a shorter working day, more breaks, a temporary change in duties, there are lots of ways to help.

However well intended, advising an employee to stay off work until treatment is over, or until they are ‘100% fit’ can actually have a negative impact on their sense of worth and on their recovery.

2. Best not to mention the ‘C’ word

This is where so many problems begin for cancer patients at work. Good communication is absolutely vital. Every single cancer case is different, and managers and colleagues need to understand this.


Employees may have faced a barrage of tests in the run up to their diagnosis, and may not want to share with colleagues exactly why they are off work. They may find it hard to talk about cancer at all. Alternatively, they might find that talking helps them and that the support of their colleagues makes a positive difference to their recovery. Given that every cancer is different, and every individual is unique, then an individual’s response to it will vary hugely as well. You just can’t make assumptions.

With this in mind, it’s really helpful and important for employers to talk to an employee regularly and openly about the adjustments they can make to help someone to at least stay connected to work even if they are not working, and to provide encouragement and reassurance if and when an employee hits a difficult patch.

3. The goal should be to help an employee to get ‘back to normal’ after cancer


The simple truth is that after cancer treatment, no-one gets ‘back to normal’. Instead, patients face a new normal where they may look very different, they’ll certainly feel different about many things and the fear of the cancer returning will often be with them.

As Peter Harvey says in his article ‘After the Treatment Finishes, Then What’[1] ‘Whatever your prognosis, whatever your hopes, whatever your personality, the second that you know that you have cancer your life changes irrevocably.’

What employers can do in these circumstances is simply to provide the support needed to help their employee to come to terms with what they have been through and to regain control and stability in a changed world.

With thanks to Barbara Wilson from Working With Cancer


[1] After the Treatment Finishes – Then What? Dr Peter Harvey Consultant Clinical Psychologist Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust

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