Cancer in the Workplace

You may at some point know a colleague, family member or friend who is fighting, or recovering from cancer and are in the workplace.  Approximately 2 million people in the UK are currently living with cancer, and this figure is likely to rise to over 4 million by 2030.

However the story is now changing – from one about end of life to one about surviving cancer and moving on.

Cancer is increasingly becoming an illness which is:

  • Successfully cured with no signs of illness
  • Treated to allow a person to live with the active disease for many years
  • Treated successfully but which may causes long-term side effects

Figures published in December 2015 show the increases in the survival of cancer by up to 10 times in some cancers. It is now increasingly more about people being cured and living with the disease.

Figures show that more than 700,000 people of working age in the UK have had a cancer diagnosis, and over 100,000 people of working age are diagnosed with cancer in the UK each year

The estimated cost to economy of people fighting with cancer and having to drop out of work is around £5.4 billion

People fighting cancer may experience some of the following;

Physical problems

 The effects of cancer and treatment can impact on people’s lives in many different ways, and can affect them for weeks, months or even years after treatment has ended.

Fatigue (extreme tiredness) is a very common and frustrating problem, with 65% of cancer survivors saying that they have had to deal with fatigue following treatment.

Other significant effects caused by cancer and it’s treatment can include pain, a reduced freedom of movement and a reduced ability to process information, applying knowledge and use judgement (cognitive functioning).

Emotional problems

A cancer diagnosis is a devastating experience for most people and often leads to them experiencing a whole range of emotions. These may include shock, anxiety, sadness, anger, relief, uncertainty and, for some people, depression.

Figures show that in fact, more than 4 in 10 (44%) of the people who have had cancer and survived had suffered from depression at some point during their illness.

Practical problems

Inevitably, people who are diagnosed with cancer need to take time off from work for treatment or check-ups.

Practical problems such as these can make a person’s working life difficult especially if employers aren’t supportive or understanding of their needs.

Effects at work

63% of people with cancer return to work.

57% of those later had to give up work or change their roles.

80% were not informed about the impact the illness might have on work or education.

People who have had a cancer diagnosis are;

More likely to become unemployed, research shows that many patients said they had never thought about its potential effects on family finances or that their employer did not discuss sick pay entitlement, flexible working or workplace adjustments with them.

Many patients described cancer-related financial worries impacting on family lifestyle, roles and relationship. Consequences included house repossession, bankruptcy, loss of independence and relationship breakdown.

On a more positive note is that Macmillan cancer support, have created a workplace toolkit which can help and guide people, to find out more about this and how they can help visit their website

Also Knowing how to support colleagues, friends and family members is key, and having a good working environment can be beneficial.

Listed below are some ways this can help as it;

  • is therapeutic
  • helps promote recovery
  • helps minimise the harmful physical, mental and social effects of ill health and disability
  • Promotes full participation in society
  • Improves quality of life


Over 70% of organizations say that making workplace adjustments to support people with disabilities is easy. Many adjustments, such as flexible working hours or allowing an employee to work from home, have no cost. Those employers that make these changes are often covered by grants or schemes from the  government’s Access to Work scheme.

People with cancer are also protected from discrimination by law. In England, Scotland and wales, The Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful for an employer to treat a person less favourably because of a disability. This also applies to those people who have had successful treatment and are in remission.

The areas it covers people from are;

  • The recruitment process
  • Terms, conditions and benefits of employment
  • Opportunities for training or promotion
  • After employment has ended

So here are some top tips that employers can do;

  • Be sensitive to the employee’s needs
  • Respect the employee’s right to privacy
  • Listen, understand and ask
  • Check guidelines and policies
  • Be prepared to make adjustments
  • Recognise the impact on colleagues
  • Check financial entitlements
  • Respect carers’ rights at work
  • Discuss a return to work plan

Don’t forget there are experts to support, such as Macmillan, who can help you and your employer become a more supportive workplace. Especially for those recovering from serious ill health, such as cancer, or returning to work after serious injury.

Help and Support 

Macmillan information & resources
Support for union reps / ULRs
Additional Macmillan support


Employer eLearning

Resources for Line Managers HR and OH professionals to support employees affected by cancer.

Working with Cancer

Cancer in the Workplace, Union Reps

Cancer in the Workplace, Managers



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