Your cancer diagnosis and work

Woman in pain at her desk

A cancer diagnosis will most likely have a big effect on your ability to work, both in the short and long term. 

However, if you feel you are able, you may want to continue working so that you can keep some routine or “normality” in your life. Or, you may feel that you cannot afford to take time out from work. 

It is best to talk openly with your employer about your diagnosis and your options regarding your workload, working hours and flexibility. You will, most likely, need to take time off for tests, treatment and recovery afterwards.

Employers have a key role to play in making adjustments and in discussing your entitlements.

Am I entitled to sick pay? 

In general, as an employee, you don’t have a legal right to be paid by your employer while on sick leave. It depends on your contract or terms of employment. Find out from your employer, or check your terms of employment, to see if you are entitled to sick pay. 

If you have been employed for 2 years or more and have the relevant social insurance contributions, you may be entitled to receive Illness Benefit from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Visit the Government's website for more information on Illness Benefit.

Public servants 

As a public servant, if you have been diagnosed with cancer, you will get 6 months (183 days) on full pay and 6 months on half pay. 

Other employed people 

You may get similar benefits if you are employed by a large company, or you may get fewer or none at all. It depends on your employer and your contract.

What happens if I am entitled to sick pay? 

Usually an employer will ask you to send in a medical certificate from your GP or family doctor when you are on sick leave. For example, you may have to send in a medical certificate if you are out sick for more than two days in a row. The medical certificate should state the date you are likely to return to work.
If you are likely to be out sick for a longer period, your employer may ask you to send in a medical certificate every week. 

Usually your contract of employment will give a limit on the amount of sick pay you can get. For example, one month’s sick pay in any 12-month period. 

If you are entitled to sick pay, your employer will probably ask you to sign over any Illness Benefit payment from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to your employer for as long as the sick pay continues. See here for more on Illness Benefit

What happens if I am not entitled to sick pay? 

If you are not entitled to sick pay from your employer, you can apply for Illness Benefit if you have enough social insurance (PRSI) contributions. If you do not have enough contributions, you should contact your local social welfare office for advice.

You will need to speak to your Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection representative, previously known as your Community Welfare Officer. 

Becoming ill when self-employed 

If you are self-employed, you are likely to suffer some immediate drop in your income because of your illness. If you have critical illness or income protection insurance, you can claim against it if you become seriously ill or are unable to work for some time. You may be eligible for some social-insurance-based payments if you're unable to work.

Also, if you have been off work due to your illness and are ready to return to work, you may only be able to do so on a phased in basis, with reduced hours or limited duties. 

If you do not have the relevant PRSI contributions to be entitled to Illness Benefit, you can apply for a means-tested social assistance payment, like the Disability Allowance or Supplementary Welfare Allowance. 

Working with cancer: Hints and tips for employers

After an employee has told you about their diagnosis

Make sure to keep in touch regularly to find out how they are getting on. Let them know that you care and that your door is open to them.

Be practical by offering to help in specific ways.

If the employee is absent from work, include them by keeping them up to date with what’s happening in work – their job is important to them.

If the employee wants others to be made aware of their situation, discuss with them how to go about this.

Be flexible

Allow for changes to the worker’s schedule if required. They may need to attend appointments or to reduce their working hours, depending on their diagnosis and treatment plan. In some cases, the employee may need to take some time off. If possible, you could offer a work-from-home option.

Adjust their workload, if necessary, should they wish to continue working while having treatment.

Find out about your employee's rights and entitlements and any company guidelines or policies that exist in relation to supporting an employee who has cancer or who is caring for someone with cancer.

Find out about legal requirements so that you can give clear guidance to your employee about their rights and entitlements and meet your obligations as an employer

If an employee wishes to return to work after a period of absence, discuss a return-to-work plan with them, such as returning to work on a phased basis.

More information for employers

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Going back to work

When you have finished cancer treatment, you may expect to go back to your old way of life and return to work straight away. But everyone reacts differently and some people can feel tired for a year or more after their treatment ends.

It is important to be realistic about what you can manage and to look after yourself at this time. Do not pretend that you are fine if really you are not. 

Cancer can also have a powerful emotional effect. If you have strong emotions, you might need to take a few months after your treatment has finished to adjust to what has happened.

For more information, see our section on emotional effects.

Many people are keen to get back to work as soon as possible because it means they are getting back to “normal” and that they are over their cancer. If you can, plan to return to work gradually.

Most employers will help you to start back to work part-time and build up to full-time hours. 

Possible challenges you may face if you go back to work:

Fatigue (tiredness) 

If you find that going back to work is making you feel very tired, it can help to talk to your employer or human resource manager. Some people find that tiredness is mild and does not interfere with their work. Others find it has a greater impact. For example, you may find it hard to concentrate or make decisions.

This can affect the quality of your work. Our booklet Coping with Fatigue has useful tips on managing fatigue in the workplace. You can also call  our Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700 to ask for a print copy. 

Other people’s reactions

You may find that your colleagues will have different reactions to you when you go back to work. Some people may have no idea what to say and may act like nothing has happened to you.

Others may be afraid of hurting you so they will avoid saying anything at all.

Coping with Fatigue booklet
Coping with Fatigue booklet
This booklet has been written to help you find ways to cope with fatigue. It is designed for people with a cancer diagnosis.
European Agency for Safety and Health at Work: Rehabilitation and return to work after cancer — instruments and practices
Executive summary on issues facing workers returning to work following cancer treatment.

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