Talking about cancer at work

Talking about cancer at work header image featuring two seated stick figures talking

In this blog, Content Developer Azmina gives practical tips for talking to your employer and other people at work about cancer.

When you have cancer, you may find the idea of talking about it upsetting or uncomfortable. But it is important to think about who needs to know and the best way to talk to them.

Telling your employer and other people at work about a cancer diagnosis may mean you get practical and emotional support. It can also help you make decisions that are right for you.

Talking to your employer 
You may worry about telling your employer that you have cancer. Perhaps you are concerned that your employer may not support you. But you have important rights at work which mean that you should be properly supported and treated fairly through your cancer diagnosis and treatment.

If you have cancer, the law considers this a disability. You must not be treated less favourably than other people because you have cancer, or for reasons connected to the cancer. That would be discrimination.

Many people find their employer supportive. Here are 10 tips that may help you talk to them:

  • Before you have a conversation, it is a good idea to make a list of questions or things you would like to discuss. You can call our work support team free on 0808 808 00 00 (Monday to Friday, 8am to 6pm) for guidance on what you might want to talk about.
  • You can speak with your line manager, human resources (HR) manager, occupational health adviser or trade union representative about the cancer.
  • If you feel nervous about talking to your employer, take someone with you for support. This could be a friend, family member, work colleague or trade union representative.
  • Ask for the conversation to take place in a private place and try to allow plenty of time. You can also remind your employer to keep the information you give them confidential.
  • Find out about your employer’s policies on sick pay, absence from work, occupational health and pensions.
  • Find out whether your employer provides any emotional support, such as an employee assistance programme (EAP) that offers counselling.
  • Let your employer know which colleagues you have decided to tell about the cancer.
  • You may be able to suggest reasonable adjustments that your employer can make. These are changes that can help you keep working or return to work. For example, this could mean time off for medical appointments or flexible (different) working arrangements.
  • Ask your employer if they would like any information about your treatment or how to support someone with cancer at work. We have information about cancer for employers.
  • Suggest having regular meetings to keep your employer up-to-date and talk about any changes.

Talking to other people at work

My work colleagues cooked me nutritious food, sent me kind text messages and gave me words of comfort and hope. That helped me get through some dark days - Shola
You may be wondering whether to tell the people you work with about the diagnosis. Do not feel under pressure if you would find this too awkward or prefer to keep your work life as normal as possible. You know what works best for you. But sometimes treatment side effects, such as hair loss, may make it difficult not to tell people.

Talking to people at work about cancer can have benefits. For example:

  • it gives them the chance to support you and know what to expect
  • you can let them know if you need any help
  • they may suggest ways to help you cope with your work
  • it may make you feel closer to the people you work with
  • there may be people with experience of cancer who could support you.

Perhaps someone you trust at work could help you tell others. You could give people a short explanation of your treatment and side effects. For example, it may be useful to explain if tiredness is a problem, your concentration is affected, or you are at risk of infection.

If anybody avoids you in the workplace, this is probably because they do not know what to say or are worried about saying the wrong thing. Showing you are willing to talk about your illness may help.

More information
For more information, you can order our free booklets Talking about cancer and Work and cancer at be.macmillan.org.uk

the covers of two Macmillan booklets

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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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