Being able to work is something that most cancer survivors want to do, not least because it provides financial independence, but also because it can provide a sense of normality after a tumultuous time. However, the path back to existing employment, or to finding a new job, may not be entirely smooth.                                                                                                  

Barbara Wilson, founder of the organisation Working with Cancer, made this journey herself back in 2005 whilst working as human resources director for a large investment management company:     

“I found it really difficult getting back to work, partly because I wasn’t prepared to tell my boss what I’d gone through, for reasons I don’t understand now. This is where my first golden rule comes in: talk to your employer about what’s going on.”                                                                                                                     

After struggling to do an eight-hour day, and despite doing her best to carry on, she eventually left her company after her boss told her “You’re no longer the person you used to be. We think it’s time for you to move on.”

“It was direct discrimination, but this really was a time when I thought I was unemployable. I was completely devastated and thought: I’m a 53 year old woman who’s had cancer, no one is ever going to employ me.”                               

Barbara realised that she just needed to give herself time and ‘’have faith and patience that I would begin to recover.” “Going from feeling there was something wrong with me to realising there was something wrong with the system took a while.”


Cancer is a disability, as is chemical menopause caused by cancer

Under the Equality Act 2010, cancer is a protected characteristic (including age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage or civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, sex, sexual orientation, race, and religion/belief).

Menopause is not currently a protected characteristic, but as cancer is considered a long term condition then the symptoms are covered. This means that you have a right to ask your employer for ‘reasonable adjustments’ like a fan, or a break to get up and walk around if you’re feeling uncomfortable, or the ability to take a rest if you need one, in theory, for the rest of your working life.


Key points for that cancer-work conversation

The ambition of Menopause after Cancer is that every cancer patient who arrives in menopause, whether temporary or permanent, will have specialist help to understand their symptoms and how they can be treated. In order to get there, honest conversations have to become the norm, enabling others to know how and when they can step in to offer support.

  1. At diagnosis: Talk to your employer or HR – the sooner you can let your employer know what you’re going through, the better. If you withhold this information and require support later on, employers may argue that you should have told them. It’s important to take the first step, not only because you might need time off, but you then also get to control who knows what, and what your colleagues are told and when. 

  2. During treatment: Keep in touch with your employer and keep the conversation going.    

  3. Post-treatment: 3-4 weeks before you are due to return to work, talk to your employer and to occupational health, if available. Your oncologist, GP or specialist nurse may be able to support you to put together a return to work plan. You may consider a phased return, doing half days, or working from home, and you may wish to discuss a temporary change of duties if you feel the need.

  4. Ongoing: Once you return to work, you may need time off for medical appointments. Also, making people aware of ‘anniversary milestones’ can be a useful exercise as these can be a time of great stress and anxiety. 

  5. A word about pay: Your employer is not obliged to pay you for time off during your recovery; you might have to take holiday or unpaid leave. However, you may find that your employer is willing to help make your recovery as stress-free as possible.


Deciding to go for something new

If you had left work, were looking for a new job, were a student, or self-employed when your treatment started, you may face different challenges. 


Barbara shares: “If you’re going for a new job you don’t have to say anything at all. It’s a really interesting area. Some people might have had cancer as a child or teenager, and now they’re looking for work. So you have a choice: you could state your disability and in some places this will guarantee you an interview, or you can keep it to yourself until you feel ready to share.’’ 


If you accept a new job and then receive a cancer diagnosis, you are protected from discrimination under the law if your new employer decides not to proceed with your employment. Equally, your employer cannot ask you questions related to your condition.

There are some excellent resources out there on the Macmillan website.

We also had Barbara Wilson on the Menopause And Cancer Podcast here:

Written by: Jane Carmichael


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