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Work and breast cancer

You may be worried about the effect of breast cancer on your employment. Learn about how you are protected under the Equality Act and how you can get support.

1. Is breast cancer classed as a disability?

For the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 anyone who has or has had breast cancer is classed as disabled. This protects employees in England, Scotland and Wales from being discriminated against because of their disability.

The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 1995 protects people living in Northern Ireland.

You cannot lose your job or be treated less favourably for having breast cancer.

2. What are my rights at work?

If you have breast cancer, employers are required to make reasonable adjustments to help you continue to work, return to work, have time off for medical appointments or for continued treatment and recovery. Your employment rights are protected under the Equality Act 2010.

You can find information about your rights at work on the Macmillan Cancer Support website.

Find out more about sick pay, benefits and additional financial support.

3. Self-employment and breast cancer

If you’re self-employed you may worry that your diagnosis and treatment will affect your business. You may not be entitled to the same support that an employed person has. However, you may have more flexibility to decide your work hours and taking time off for hospital appointments. 

You can call Macmillan on 0808 808 00 00 to find out what benefits and financial support you are entitled to. They also have information on self-employment and cancer.

4. Work during breast cancer treatment

Everyone is different and what works for some people may not work for you. Some people continue to work, sometimes with reduced hours, and others give up work temporarily or permanently.

Whether you feel able to work while going through breast cancer treatment will depend on:

  • The type of breast cancer you have and whether it has spread
  • The treatment you’re having and side effects
  • Your financial situation
  • Your physical and mental wellbeing
  • The support you have around you, for example help with childcare

For some people, work can provide normality, while others decide to concentrate on treatment and recovery. Speak to your treatment team about how your diagnosis and treatment may affect your daily life.

5. Returning to work after breast cancer treatment

If you’ve taken time off or reduced your working hours during your breast cancer treatment, when you decide to return to work will depend on how you’re feeling, what your job involves and your financial situation.

If your job is physically or mentally stressful, you may also need more time off before you feel ready to return.

Returning to work can be a very positive step and may help some people move forward by regaining some normality. However, many people feel disappointed and frustrated that it isn’t as easy as they imagined. This may be because they are experiencing side effects of their treatment such as fatigue, or are adjusting to life after a cancer diagnosis and the emotional changes this can bring.

It can be helpful to discuss your plan to return to work with your treatment team, occupational health or Human Resources (HR) department and your manager. Your employer is required to make reasonable adjustments to help you return to work and manage work long term.

You may be able to get financial support and childcare support during and after treatment.

Although it is not possible for everyone, some people give up work permanently or take early retirement.

6. Reasonable adjustments at work

Your employer must make reasonable adjustments. Reasonable adjustments are changes to your workplace or job role that make working more realistic for you, or that help you return to work.

Although every employer is different and will have different policies and procedures, the suggestions below may help you talk to your employer about reasonable adjustments.

Phased return to work

A phased return to work is when you gradually return to your job and workplace. Your employer may be able to offer this if you’ve been off work due to breast cancer treatment.

Temporary changes to your work pattern

You may want to speak to your manager or HR department about changing your work hours or days for a short period of time. You may also want to ask about having time off for medical appointments.

Adjustments to your role

Sometimes your employer may be able to make some changes to your role and if possible put you on lighter duties for a period of time. This may involve reducing your workload. You may also be offered a change of role after discussion with your employer. This will be dependent on the type of job you do and your work environment.

Coping with side effects

It can be difficult for your employer to know how to support you and understand any side effects you may have from treatment. The following tips may help you and your employer to improve your work life:

  1. If you work in an office you could change your desk location and make sure you have a fan handy or are nearer the toilets
  2. Take breaks more often to help with your energy levels and concentration
  3. If you have to wear a uniform speak to your employer about whether you can adjust this to your needs

Speak to colleagues

Some people find that colleagues don’t understand their breast cancer diagnosis and the impact it can have on daily life. You could speak to your colleagues to explain your treatment, or give them information to read.

This may help you to feel more supported by your colleagues at work.

Speak to your treatment team or GP

There may be other adjustments that can help you. Speak to your treatment team or GP about adjustments they would recommend and share this with your employer.

7. Flexible working

Your employer may have a flexible working policy. You could speak to your manager or HR department about changing your hours, start and finish times, and working part-time or shorter days. This could be a short-term or long-term adjustment.

Find out more about different types of flexible working on the Acas website.

8. Do I have to tell my employer about my breast cancer?

You don’t have to tell your employer about your diagnosis and treatment if you don’t want to.

How much information you give about your breast cancer to those involved with your return to work is a personal decision. However, you have the right for any information you do provide to be kept private and only discussed with other people with your permission.

Your employer has a duty to make reasonable adjustments to your role or working environment to help you do your job. If you don’t tell them about your diagnosis and treatment, it may be difficult for them to know what adjustments to make.

New employer

Employers are not permitted to ask questions about candidates’ health during the recruitment process. This includes asking if you have a disability.

But if your health is relevant to the job or to be used as equal opportunities monitoring then they can ask.

Once you’ve been offered a job, an employer can then ask for information about your health. If you’re asked directly it’s important you answer truthfully. Giving false or incomplete information could mislead your employer. They cannot withdraw the job offer because of you have had breast cancer.

If you feel like you have been discriminated against at work because of your breast cancer diagnosis, you can contact Acas on 0300 123 1100.

9. Giving up work after breast cancer

Some people choose to stop working altogether after a diagnosis of breast cancer. This may be for health reasons or because the experience of having breast cancer has made them re-assess what’s important. However, giving up work is not an option for everyone and your circumstances may mean it’s not possible for you to do this.

Giving up work for good means you also give up any rights and benefits linked to your job. If you’re planning to stop working, get independent employment guidance before you make any decisions.

You may be able to take medical retirement (you may hear it called ill health retirement). This is an early retirement that means you can take your pension before your policy retirement age (usually after you’re 55). Not everyone is eligible for this, it depends on your pension provider, employer pension scheme and individual circumstances. Speak to your employer or pension provider about whether this is possible for you.

10. Your rights if you’re caring for someone with breast cancer

If you are caring for someone with a breast cancer diagnosis you may be entitled to request flexible working to help you find a balance between work and your caring responsibilities.

See our section below on useful organisations, for support and guidance on your rights at work when caring for someone with breast cancer. 

You may want to read our information on being the partner of someone with breast cancer.

11. Useful organisations

Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service)

Acas provides free and impartial information and advice to employers and employees on all aspects of workplace relations and employment law. They also have a Disability at work hub that explains your rights.

Access to Work

Access to Work is a government scheme that can support you and your employer to make reasonable adjustments at work. They can provide grants to help cover the costs of practical support in the workplace.

Citizen’s Advice

Citizen’s Advice is a charity that offers free financial advice. They offer support on benefits, work, debt and finances, housing and health.

Macmillan Cancer Support

Macmillan Cancer Support offers free financial guidance and support to people with breast cancer. They produce information on work, self-employment and your rights. You can also call the Macmillan Support Line on 0808 808 00 00 to speak to their financial guidance team.

Working Families

Working Families offers free advice and support on employment rights and in-work benefits for parents and carers. They also have information on balancing work and caring responsibilities.

Working With Cancer

Working With Cancer helps support employees, employers, the self-employed, job seekers and carers to manage cancer and work. They offer guidance, coaching and resources to help people during and after cancer treatment. 

12. Further support

Thinking about work and breast cancer may make you feel overwhelmed and anxious. You may find our information on coping emotionally and managing stress and anxiety helpful.

You can also speak to our nurses below, or share your concerns and experience through our online discussion forum.

Our Someone Like Me service - see below - can put you in touch with someone who has experience of the issues you’re facing.

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Quality assurance

Last reviewed in November 2021. The next planned review begins in November 2024.

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