Your rights at work when you’re affected by cancer

* This blog was updated 15/12/2016

Each year, almost 132,000 people diagnosed with cancer in the UK will be in employment at the time they are diagnosed.

Whether you are an employee, carer, business or health professional, we can provide support and information about work and cancer. In this blog, editor Steven explains more about your rights at work when you have cancer. 

Cancer can have a big impact on work. Our website has lots of information on work and cancer. Here you can find out about the laws in place to protect against discrimination, and get tips on dealing with cancer in the workplace. We also have a booklet Your rights at work when you're affected by cancer that has more information.

Cancer and the side effects of treatment can be intense. Some people may be able to continue working through treatment. Other people may have to stop. Taking time off work can leave you feeling angry, lonely and worried about your finances.

If you have cancer and are in paid employment, or you care for someone who has cancer, your employer should try to help and support you. Where reasonable, they should make changes to let you do your job during and after your cancer treatment. Legislation protects you from being treated unfairly at work because of cancer. If you live in England, Scotland or Wales, the Equality Act 2010 protects you. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995, protects you if you live in Northern Ireland.

This legislation doesn’t just protect employees. It also protects job applicants and people who are self-employed. And it doesn’t end when your cancer treatment finishes. Your employer must not treat you less favourably for any reason related to cancer that you have had in the past.

The image shows two statistics: Almost 1 in 5 people (18%) who return to work after cancer say they experience discrimination from their employer or colleagues. More than a third (35%) report other negative experiences such as feeling guilty for having to take time off for medical appointments and a loss of confidence in their ability to do their job.

Terry, 58, from Southport, was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2010. After treatment he was dismissed from his job and successfully sued the company for unfair dismissal and discrimination.

The image shows a quote which reads: Initially my line manager was supportive when I told him I had cancer – he said they’d continue to pay me and to take any time off I needed. But I’d only been back at work for a couple of weeks after treatment when he informed me they’d have to let me go. He made it clear he was sacking me because I had cancer, saying they didn’t want to hinder my recovery and that by sacking me it would reduce the stress on me.  I went into a state of shock. When I told my wife she burst into tears, it was awful, we had a new born baby and it was the most horrible time for both of us. We really struggled financially during this period and the stress and worry of it all impacted on my recovery.

Discrimination happens when an employee is treated less favourably than another person because of their disability. Discrimination can affect different aspects of employment, such as:

  • the recruitment process
  • terms, conditions and benefits
  • opportunities for promotion and training.

Under these acts, employers are requested to make reasonable adjustments to make it easier for an employee with a disability to work.

Discriminatory actions fall under three categories:

  • direct disability discrimination
  • discrimination arising from disability
  • indirect disability discrimination.

Legislation also protects employees from:

  • disability harassment – when an employee experiences unwanted behaviour due to their disability
  • victimisation – when an employee is treated unfairly after making a complaint.

Under the acts, carers are also protected from direct discrimination and harassment.

In the below video, Helen talks about finding she had bowel cancer while in employment and how she discussed this with her employer. Stewarts Law, partner Tim Spillane, also explains how the law protects people in employment with cancer from discrimination.

If you have or have had cancer, you are protected by law from unfair treatment. Our free guide can help you understand more about your rights at work, what you can do if you are being discriminated against, and what support is available. We have information to help you talk to your employer about returning to or staying in work after cancer.

If you are worried about your finances, you may want to read our helpful booklets on topics such as the benefits you may be entitled to, other financial support and managing your finances.

The Macmillan website also has information if you are self-employed, an employer, run a small business or if you are a carer.

If you are an employer, you're likely to face managing employees affected by cancer in the workplace. Managers and colleagues might need supporting too. Macmillan at Work provides  a range of expert training, consultancy options, and resources to help you, including an e-newsletter, and free work and cancer toolkit.

To see what else Macmillan's cancer information team has been blogging about, please visit our blog home page! You can subscribe to receive our blogs by email or RSS too.

We're with you every step of the way

The Macmillan team is here to help. Our cancer support specialists can answer your questions, offer support, or simply listen if you need a chat. Call us free on 0808 808 00 00.

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Keep in touch Follow Macmillan’s cancer information team on Twitter @mac_cancerinfo

  • <p>Hi </p> <p>I noticed that you&#39;ve asked a&nbsp;question on this blog but&nbsp;could I recommend that you&nbsp;post this in <a href="/cancer_experiences/ask_the_expert/ask-a-work-support-adviser/discussions">ask a work support adviser</a> and one of the work support team will aim to reply within a couple of working days.</p> <p>x</p>
  • <p>I have also been told to use my annual leave carried forward from last year for my staged return to work.&nbsp; However after discovering that a chunk of my annual leave has not been brought forward from last year I have refused to do this.&nbsp; I have now been told that if I cannot reach a 5 day week within 8 weeks of my return then I am to sign a new contract for reduced hours even though I have a sick note&nbsp; (fit note) expressing that I am only capable of a slower staged return than that.&nbsp; I just wonder where I would have stood had I not returned until I was in a position to return to work 5 days a week</p>
  • <p>I am a cancer support worker and have seen a lady who has been told to take her sick leave as annual leave even with a sick note? Any advice or tips would be great thank you.</p>
  • <p>Hi </p> <p>Thank you for your comment and responding on our blog. I&#39;m sorry to hear of the difficulties you have faced with work, I hope I can be of some help.</p> <p><br />On the Macmillan support line we have a Work support team that can offer information and advise on your situation at work. The team can talk to you in more detail of your rights as a cancer patient and give you information on approaching your managers and HR with this matter.</p> <p>The work support team can be contacted on 0808 808 00 00 Monday to Friday 9am till 6pm. I can see you mentioned English is not your first language, if you need an interpreter simply ring the number and tell the team what your first spoken language is and they will arrange for an interpreter to join the line to help.</p> <p>The work support team also create regular work related blogs <a href="/blogs/b/cancer-s-not-fair-but-your-boss-has-to-be">here on the community</a>, on many different topics that have been raised by other members.</p> <p>On our website <a href=" we hold a range of publications relating to work. On the site you can find the <a href="">Work and cancer booklet</a>, this covers rights, coping with effects of treatment whilst working and other topics.</p> <p>I hope you find this information helpful.</p> <p>Kindest regards,</p> <p>Jess<br />Macmillan Online Community Team</p>
  • Hi, 

    I would like to ask you for information. I have been diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2018. I have turn back to work full time, without any support from the company, they didn't reduce my hours, and they pushed me to go back to my previous job, which includes lifting up heavy things and staying in cold store. I would like to ask you if I have to go to some appointments and I have to take few hours off of work do I have to give then back the hours, because they are asking me to do that. If I remember right somewhere here in Macmillan I have read that they can not stop me to go for my appointments and they can not ask me to give them back the hours off for the appointements, or is that only if I use the time just for treatments. Is that true ? How it is by the law? I just want to know, so I can go and argue with the HR ? 

    Apologies, but English is not my first language.

    Thanks in advance for your help!