Changing the conversation about work and cancer

Early Days: Dealing with Your Cancer Diagnosis and Work

Coping with a diagnosis of cancer and work is never eaxy
Coping with a diagnosis of cancer and work is never easy

So you’ve had ‘the news’ and you are coping with the fact that you really do have cancer.  Your family and friends are also coming to terms with it all. Suddenly your life (at home and at work) isn’t your own to plan – the doctors need to see you on certain days at specific times, there is very little room for manoeuvre.

You may not yet know a great deal about your cancer; more tests, or further investigations, or surgery may be needed to find out more, so you don’t really know how ill you are or how much sick leave you will need, but you do know you will need it, possibly quite a lot.

What do you tell your employer in these circumstances, and when; should you say anything until you are absolutely sure what the situation is?  We are all individuals who like to do things in a certain way at a certain time because we feel it’s right for us, but what is right when even the next few days and weeks are unclear let alone the future?

Making decisions about work at this stage will be very difficult. A lot will depend on the full diagnosis, the treatment you receive and on your individual circumstances. You may be able to carry on working either full-time or part-time during your treatment. You may want to work during your treatment because it gives you the opportunity to focus on something other than your cancer and provides a welcome sense of normality. You may feel you need to work because of your financial situation.  A lot depends on the type of work that you do, on the type of cancer you have and what type of treatment you choose.

Bottom line, it’s impossible to predict how you’ll react to treatment until you start.  This uncertainty makes it hard to look ahead and to decide exactly what you are going to do and how much work you will be able to take on during treatment. So don’t make promises or decisions about how you will manage your work during treatment until you know more.

Acknowledging all of this, you still need to let your employer know what you know and what you don’t know. You are not obliged to do this but if you do, it will enable your employer to understand what is happening to you and provide you with the support you need at an incredibly difficult time. If you don’t tell your employer, and you start taking a number of unexplained sickness or other absences, it tends to foster mistrust as well as concern, neither of which is helpful to anybody, particularly you.

Having that first conversation can be very tough and many people worry about telling their employer they have cancer because they fear that at some stage it will be used against them – as an excuse to sack them or make them redundant. It is therefore really important to note  that being diagnosed with cancer means that you are protected by the Equality Act 2010 in England, Scotland and Wales (the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in Northern Ireland), which makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate against people with a disability.

Being classed as disabled might not be your idea of good news but it does mean that your first conversation about cancer with your employer, one which is critically important in terms of providing you with the support you are going to need, will be a ‘safe’ one.

Written for Beauty Despite Cancer ( May 6 2014