If you’ve had to take time off work during breast cancer treatment, when or whether you return can depend on a number of things. We look at your rights and your employer’s responsibilities.
How much time you take off work during treatment for breast cancer will depend on what treatment you have, how long your recovery takes, and your own personal circumstances.
Whether you took time off or reduced your working hours during your breast cancer treatment you may be keen for life to start getting back to normal. Returning to work after a breast cancer diagnosis can be a very positive step and may help some people move forward by maintaining or regaining some normality.
Returning to your usual work pattern can be difficult for a number of reasons, and many people feel disappointed and frustrated that this isn’t as easy as they imagined. This may be because they are experiencing side effects such as fatigue, your arm and shoulder movement might be more limited, or you may still be dealing with the emotional effects of your diagnosis and treatment.
When and whether you decide to return to work will depend to some extent on what your job involves and your financial situation. If your job is physically or mentally stressful, you may need a longer period of time off before you feel ready to return.
Your employer's responsibilities
In England, Scotland and Wales, if you have or have had breast cancer, the Equality Act 2010 protects you against any discrimination relating to your employment including the recruitment process. For the purposes of the Act, anyone who has or has had cancer is classed as disabled.
The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) continues to protect people living in Northern Ireland.
Your employer is required to make reasonable adjustments to help you return to work to have time off for medical appointments or continued treatment and recovery. You can discuss returning to work and what adjustment your employer might need to make with your doctor, occupational health or human resources departments, or your line manager.
Telling your employer
You don’t have to tell your employer any details of 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.
You also have the right for any information you do provide about your breast cancer to be kept private and only discussed with other people with your permission.
Remember your employer has a duty to make reasonable adjustments to your role or your working environment to help you do your job. If you don’t tell them about your diagnosis and treatment it’s difficult for them to know what adjustments they need to make.
Sue Ealing started back at work at Asda after having 15 months off during treatment for breast cancer.
‘I had only worked at Asda for 10 months before I was diagnosed,’ says Sue. ‘But while I was off work I was missing the customers and my colleagues. When I decided it was time for me to go back I was still feeling pretty tired because of the effects of treatment, but I was ready.
‘You lose a bit of your self-worth and your identity when you’re not working. But going back to work has restored that for me. I feel better because I’m earning money again and it has given me my feeling of self-worth back.
‘I had a lumpectomy and my lymph nodes removed under my arm. I then had to have chemotherapy and radiotherapy and I now have to take letrozole for five years.
‘I spoke to my doctor and said “I’m fed up and I want to go back to work”. He said if I felt I was ready that it was OK by him. I then spoke to the Services Manager at the store where I work and asked her how I’d go about this. I had to see a member of the occupational health team who assessed me and said I was fine to return to work.
‘I was still numb under my arm because of having the lymph nodes removed. When I went back to work I found that under my arm was hurting after a long shift. I find heavy bags of dog food quite difficult to lift but I only have to ask and someone will help me with them. And if I say to my colleagues I need to go home, they’re OK with that because they understand.
‘Asda has been very supportive and I eased back in gradually: I did a couple of hour shifts to start with. Now I’m up to 14 hours a week which is more than I was doing before I had treatment.’
Not returning to work
Some people decide not to go back to work after having breast cancer. This may be for health reasons or because the experience of having breast cancer has made them reassess 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, such as pension rights. So if you’re planning to stop working it’s important to get independent employment advice before you make any decisions. Macmillan Cancer Support can talk through your financial situation and options with you.
Starting a new job
If you’re looking to start a new job you might be worried that giving information about your cancer could affect your chances of success. The Equality Act protects anyone who has had treatment for cancer against any discrimination relating to employment – including the recruitment process.
Under the Equality Act, employers are not permitted to ask questions about candidates’ health during the recruitment process. This includes asking if you have a disability. However, an employer can ask for information regarding your health if it is relevant to the job or is to be used as part of equal opportunities monitoring.
If you’re asked whether you have a health condition on an application form or in an interview, it might be a good idea to check whether the question is one that is allowed to be asked at that stage of recruitment.
Once you have 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. However, if they then decide to withdraw the job offer, this must be for reasons that are non-discriminatory.
Natalie Ellis is an office manager at a chartered accountancy firm.
‘I was self-employed when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I had no choice but to carry on working because as a single parent I needed the income. I tried to get benefits to support me so I could take time off, but being self-employed it was hard.
‘I would take the day off when I had my chemotherapy because it made me really sick but other than that I kept working full time. I worked from home other than one day a week when I would go to see clients. I was worried about catching something while my immunity was low during chemotherapy so I stopped going to see clients.
‘If you can work from home during treatment, do. But try not to be a hermit – you need to see people too.
‘About a year after my treatment I took a full-time job with one of my clients. I was lucky because they already knew about my cancer and it wasn’t an issue. I’m in charge of health and safety in the office so I’ve made sure I’ve got a good comfortable chair and a footrest. I had an LD flap breast reconstruction so sometimes I have to get up and have a bit of a stretch, but other than that I’m just like any other employee.’
To speak to a Macmillan financial guide, call free on 0808 808 00 00 Monday to Friday 9am–8pm, or email the team on email@example.com
The Department for Work and Pensions has a free benefit inquiry line for people with disabilities.
Citizens Advice is also a good place to go for guidance.
For employment advice you can contact Acas or call their helpline on 0300 1230 1100.
If you’re thinking about going back to work after treatment you might like to talk to someone who has been in a similar position. Breast Cancer Care can put you in touch with a trained volunteer who can help. Call the Helpline on 0808 800 6000 for more information.