My experience of cancer at work: two perspectives

06 August 2021

A cancer diagnosis can affect every part of a person’s life, including their ability to work. People with cancer may need time off for tests, treatments and appointments. They may also find that the side effects of cancer or its treatment will make work difficult to manage at times.

Despite these challenges, many people with cancer find that working through their treatment – or returning to work afterwards – can help with a sense of routine and normality. There are a lot of things that line managers can do to facilitate this. The following are real accounts* from an employee and her line manager about how they handled cancer in the workplace. ​

An employee perspective: Sarah

“I have lots of moles and have previously been diagnosed with a superficial spreading melanoma, but that was ten years ago. Since then, I had become more complacent having received the all clear in my regular yearly check-ups with the dermatology team.

“So, when I was diagnosed last Summer with not one, but two melanomas, it came as a bit of a shock. As a busy working mother of two young children hearing the word ‘cancer’ felt scary, as initially I started worrying about the impact on family life and work, and most importantly what the outcome might be.

“Initially I didn’t share the news with anyone at work, thinking it best to just get on with things. However, as the medical appointments cranked up, I made the decision to tell my manager.

“It was definitely the right thing to do. My manager was extremely supportive of my situation, and I immediately felt less anxious for being able to share what I was going through at work. I also appreciated his total discretion in dealing with the matter.

“A big thing that really helped me to deal with my diagnosis at work, was having an employer who was extremely sensitive to my medical schedule. I was able to change my hours to work around hospital appointments and treatment without any difficulty, and I also ensured that my manager was kept fully informed at all times of my treatment status.

“One year on I’ve been given the all clear, and continue to be grateful for the support and understanding that I received at work, which played a crucial role in helping me to get through a difficult time.”

A manager perspective: John

“I had some prior knowledge of how cancer can affect people at work, so when Sarah told me about her diagnosis, I tried my best to be fully understanding and supportive. I also wanted to give her complete control over who knew about the diagnosis. I suggested that it might be helpful for me to tell my manager, so that he would be aware of the reason for any time off, and so that he could offer support as well. But I stressed that it was her choice, and I wouldn’t tell anyone without her consent. Sarah was happy for me to tell my manager, so I did so in confidence. I think respecting people’s communication preferences is important here.

“I mainly just made an effort to check in regularly to see how Sarah was doing, and to offer any support she needed. She didn’t need any major workplace adjustments as such, other than time off for appointments and a degree of flexible working in terms of her hours and working from home. But I kept in mind that many people affected by cancer do need bigger adjustments to help them work as normally as possible.

“I was so pleased for Sarah when she told me she had the all clear. The main thing I think you need to do as a line manager in this situation is to be understanding and sensitive. Leading on from that, you’ll naturally be able to explore with the person affected what may help them in their role.”

Bupa has more information about cancer that could help you to understand how it affects people. The charity Macmillan Cancer Support also has a wealth of information about cancer and the workplace, for employees and managers.

*The names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals


  • Work and cancer. Macmillan Cancer Support, April 2019.

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