Last reviewed on 31/10/2016 16:25

This page gives basic information on cancer in the workplace. We've also provided links to advice on how to support employees with a cancer diagnosis, details of legal duties and entitlements, and other helpful organisations.

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Cancer and the workplace

Cancer now affects one in three people, and each year in the UK there are approximately 90,000 people of working age who receive a new cancer diagnosis.

Research shows that finding ways to support people with cancer is a worthwhile thing to do:

"People who have had treatment for cancer are as productive as people who have not had cancer – they take less time off work than other employees, and in general, perform well in the workplace." Shulz, P. et al (2002), Cancer Survivors – Work-related Issues, American Association of Occupational Health Nurses Journal.

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Causes of cancer

The causes of cancer are varied and complex. Some can be attributed to lifestyle, others to genetic traits inherited from our parents, or to exposure to viruses, radiation and other hazardous substances. In many cases, a combination of factors will contribute to causing cancer.

In the workplace, exposure to certain chemicals and other agents, such as sources of ionising radiation and asbestos, can cause cancers.

Employers must conduct a risk assessment to identify and eliminate, or control risks to their employees from hazardous substances.

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Stages of cancer disease

The name of the cancer refers to where the first tumour occurs, e.g. breast cancer. The first occurrence of cancer is called a primary tumour.

If the cancer spreads from the initial site, the subsequent tumours are called metastases and could show up anywhere in the body having travelled through the blood or lymphatic systems.

When a cancer has metastasised to another part of the body, the tumour is called a secondary. For example, breast cancer may lead to secondary tumours in the liver. As the primary tumour was breast cancer, it is still called breast cancer even though the tumour is somewhere else.

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Treatments for cancer

The treatment of cancer varies and can consist of removing the primary tumour through surgery and possibly also killing off any stray cells around the area with radiotherapy.

Sometimes, chemotherapy is also suggested to reach cells that have moved to a different part of the body, but everyone is different. Chemotherapy is sometimes used as an initial treatment to shrink a tumour before surgery.

Different types of treatment include:

  • Surgery – this involves removing all or part of the tumour in an operation
  • Chemotherapy – the use of chemical agents (cytotoxic drugs) to kill cancer cells
  • Radiotherapy – uses powerful X-rays directed specifically at the area of the tumour to destroy the cancer cells
  • Hormone treatment – because the body's hormonal ('endocrine') system is involved in some cancers, hormone treatment is often used to regulate the levels of hormones in the body
  • Immunotherapy – the aim of this type of treatment is to stimulate the immune system so that it can fight the cancer itself. Monoclonal antibodies are one form of immunotherapy.

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Advice for managers and colleagues on supporting people with cancer

Sometimes it is difficult to talk about cancer to family, friend and colleagues.

Healthy Working Lives and Macmillan Cancer Support have produced Cancer in the Workplace, a booklet offering useful guidance on the subject for employers.

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Legal considerations around employees with cancer

Equality Act 2010

People with cancer are included in the remit for the Equality Act and have legal protection from the point of first diagnosis of their cancer.

→ Read more on disability discrimination within the Equality Act

Statutory Sick Pay

Employees who are off work because of cancer or the treatment of it may be eligible for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP).

→ Further details can be found on the Department of Work and Pensions website (external site).

Flexible working

Depending on circumstances, sometimes an employee will need to take care of a family member who becomes ill. Under the Work and Families Act (2006) carers now have the right to request flexible working.

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Further information on cancer in the workplace

Access to Work (external site) 
Access to Work provides advice and practical support to disabled people and their employers to help overcome any work-related problems resulting from a disability.

Bowel Cancer UK (external site) 
Helpline: 0131 225 5333
National Charity dedicated to raising awareness of bowel cancer, improving the quality of life of those affected and reducing deaths from the disease.

Breast Cancer Care Scotland (external site) 
Helpline: 0808 800 6000
Helpline, literature, living with breast cancer courses, healthy living days, young women’s forum, advice on bras, swimwear, prosthesis, emotional support for trained volunteers, who have been affected by breast cancer, advice on hair loss, scarf tying and alternatives to wigs.

Citizens Advice Scotland (external site) 
For details of your nearest Citizens Advice Bureau phone 020 7833 218, check your local phonebook or browse the Citizens Advice Scotland website.

Cruse Bereavement Care Scotland (external site) 
Cruse is a charity offering free, confidential information and services for anyone who is bereaved.

Directgov – Disabled People pages (external site) 
Produced by the Central Offices of Information, Directgov provides information from across UK government departments on topics including work and disability, rights and responsibilities and carers.

Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) ​(external site) 
Helpline (Scotland): 0845 604 5510 Textphone: 0845 604 5520.
The Equal Opportunities Commission was formed in 2007 and combines the Disability Rights Commission and the Commission for Equality and Human Rights. The EOC website has useful information for employers.  

Equality Advisory Service
Adviceline: 0808 800 0082 Textphone: 0808 800 0084.

Fit for Work Scotland (external site)
Adviceline: 0800 019 22 11 option 2 Textphone: 18001 0800 019 22 11
Supporting employers to support employees who are absent and looking to return to work.

Living Life
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) telephone service and self support.

Macmillan Cancer Support (external site) 
Website provides information about cancer and services for people affected by cancer and for health care professionals.

NHS inform Cancer Zone (external site)

No time to Lose Campaign (external site) 
Website supporting employers.

Scottish Recovery Network and Wellness Recovery Action Plan (external site)

Tak Tent Cancer Support Scotland (external site) 
Information and support to cancer patients, their relatives and friends, health professionals and support groups, including youth groups, available in communities throughout the west and central Scotland. Counselling services and complementary therapies are available.

The Prostate Cancer Charity (external site) 
Provides support and information to anyone concerned about prostate cancer via a range of free information leaflets, a confidential nurse-led helpline and a network of volunteers.

The Wee C - Bring Cancer down to size (external site) 

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Supporting employees on long term sickness absence

Fit for Work Scotland is a free, confidential advice and support service to help manage long term sickness absence. Employers worried about their employees and GPs concerned about their patients can, with consent, refer them to the service (online referral is quick and easy). Provided by NHS Scotland the service offers expert support, assessment and back-to-work advice.

Visit Fit for Work Scotland or call the Adviceline to discuss your options 0800 019 2211.

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Other useful reference sites and documents

Macmillan Cancer publications

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