It’s possible that your way of working will change during and after cancer treatment. Some people can keep working during treatment, but others may need to stop. How much time you need to take away from work will depend on your treatment plan, side effects and the type of work you do. Working or not working can affect your emotions in ways that you might not expect.

Do you have to tell people at work?

The short answer is no. If you need to take time off, reduce your hours or change how you work during treatment or afterwards, you can ask your doctor for a note that says there are medical reasons for your request. That is all that your boss or supervisor needs to know. You don’t have to tell co-workers anything at all if you don’t want to.

If you don’t tell anyone at work, it protects your privacy, but there are some downsides. People you work with will likely wonder what is going on if you’re away a lot or if cancer changes how you look. This can lead to gossip, which may add to your worries. Also, if you don’t tell people, they can’t help and support you.

The decision is yours, based on what you know about your workplace and the people you work with. Many people do share the diagnosis at work. If you do, think about who you will tell and how much detail you would like to share.

Taking time away from work

Some people with cancer try to keep working while being treated for cancer. Others take time off work – because they choose to or because they have to. Some cancer treatments may mean taking only a few days off work, but some may require several weeks or months of recovery. It may reassure you to at least know what your options are for taking time away from work. Talk to your employer or human resources department about sick leave, vacation leave or leave without pay. Your union or employee association may also be able to help.

If you are able to continue working, it can help you feel good about yourself. For many of us, our jobs are closely tied to how we see ourselves and our place in the world. Working reminds some people that there is more to their life than cancer. You may find that work can help keep your mind off your illness. Being around other people at work and having their support may also make you feel better.

If you want to continue working as much as you can, tell your healthcare team. It may be possible to arrange treatment times to lessen any impact on work. You can also discuss ways to manage side effects during work hours.

For some people, taking time away from work may feel like a relief. But it can also be stressful if it leads to money problems. If you enjoy your job, it can be hard to give it up. Giving up work, even for a short time, makes some people feel like they’ve given in to the cancer. If you feel this way, try instead to think of your time off as a chance to focus on your health.

Try to stay in contact with people at work while you are away. People at work may be very supportive while you are going through treatment. Staying in contact with them can also make it easier when you are ready to return to work.

Returning to work

Many people who are able to do so go back to their jobs after they finish cancer treatment. Many say it helps them get back to normal. But it can take time to recover fully from treatment. Some people find that it works well to go part time at first and gradually increase working hours.

Talk to your doctor about when you might be ready to go back to work and what to expect. Discuss any challenges you might face and try to plan how to make your return to work both safe and successful.

Once you’re back, give yourself and your co-workers time to adjust. You may feel like you’re being treated differently when you really just want to be treated the same as before. It may seem hard at first to reconnect with your team. There could be new people or a new boss to get to know. You may feel guilty for having left your co-workers with a greater workload – it’s normal to then worry about how these co-workers will now feel or act.

You may find that you no longer are comfortable at your workplace or that you aren’t finding your work rewarding. Sometimes people end up changing jobs and careers after cancer treatment.

Watch the Expert Angle webinar on "Returning to work after cancer: How to prepare" to learn more.

Discrimination is against the law

Some people with cancer have problems in their workplace when they try to continue working while in treatment or when they return to work. They may find themselves demoted or passed over for promotions. Or they may feel that they’re being denied benefits or have problems taking time off for medical appointments. They may be let go from their jobs or not be hired for new jobs.

As long as you are qualified for the job, employers cannot treat you differently from other workers in job-related activities because of a cancer history. By law, employers must make reasonable changes, such as changes in work hours or duties, to help you do your job during or after cancer treatment. But they don’t have to make changes that would cost too much or create risks to health or safety.

What if you can no longer work?

Some people find that they can’t return to work after cancer treatment even if they want to. If you can no longer work, this can be very stressful. You will most likely still need a regular income to pay bills, the mortgage or rent and other living expenses.

It’s important that you get the support and advice that you need. Find out about financial assistance programs and government benefits. You may qualify for Canada Pension Plan (CPP) disability benefits if you have a disability that prevents you from working at any job on a regular basis. Social workers at your hospital can help you learn more about these benefits.

You may find it useful to see a financial advisor or planner to discuss financial concerns. Your bank may have a financial advisor you can talk to. The Financial Planning for Canadians website has helpful information on finding a certified financial planner.

Expert review and references

  • Nitkin P, Parkinson M, & Schultz IZ. Cancer and Work: A Canadian Perspective. British Columbia Cancer Agency; 2011.

Medical disclaimer

The information that the Canadian Cancer Society provides does not replace your relationship with your doctor. The information is for your general use, so be sure to talk to a qualified healthcare professional before making medical decisions or if you have questions about your health.

We do our best to make sure that the information we provide is accurate and reliable but cannot guarantee that it is error-free or complete.

The Canadian Cancer Society is not responsible for the quality of the information or services provided by other organizations and mentioned on, nor do we endorse any service, product, treatment or therapy.

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