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Laura Vernals
Working through cancer Development Manager, Macmillan Cancer Support
Laura Vernals

Cancer and work – how employers can support staff with fluctuating conditions

Authors: Laura Vernals

09 December 2014

Last month I represented Macmillan at a roundtable event organised by The Work Foundation’s Health at Work Policy Unit, to discuss how employers can be better supported to deal with fluctuating conditions at work. This was a precursor to a report being launched by the Unit in January 2015. Following this event, I was keen to share some thoughts about work and the fluctuating symptoms which cancer can cause.

There are over 750,000 people of working age living with cancer in the UK and the cancer story is changing. More people are living with and beyond cancer than ever before but many need support after treatment to meet their ongoing needs and to live with cancer as a long-term condition.

A recent survey reveals that 82% of people with cancer say work is important to them. A job can restore normality, routine, stability, social contact and income. Moreover, for people with ill health or disability, remaining in or returning to work can actually help to promote recovery and lead to better health outcomes.

However, many people experience side effects from cancer and its treatment which can make it difficult to work. Depression, fatigue, urinary or bowel incontinence, lymphoedema and osteoporosis are just some of the side effects of cancer or its treatment. These often fluctuating and sometimes chronic conditions can affect a person and their ability to work. However, it doesn’t mean they can’t work. 

It does mean that employers have to understand that adjustments may need to be made at any time after a return to work. Cancer is classed as a disability under the Equality Act and Disability Discrimination Act which means employers are obliged to make reasonable adjustments.

By making small changes, employers can make a big difference to the individual whilst meeting the needs of the organisation such as offering flexible working arrangements, allowing a phased return to work or modifying a job description or work duties. Many adjustments have no or minimum costs and more than 70% of organisations that make workplace adjustments have told Macmillan they consider them easy. 

There are some adjustments that need to be managed sensitively. For example, moving someone’s desk closer to toilet facilities could be done as part of a wider reorganisation of team desks, or making sure that comfort breaks occur regularly in long meetings can allow people to stretch their muscles or use the facilities. 

A little consideration can mean a lot. For those adjustments that do come with a cost, purchasing special equipment for example, government funding such as Access to Work is available.

Watch our short video to see how one employer made temporary changes to an employee’s work duties to help them remain in work during treatment. For more workplace support for employers, including resources and training, visit