People with cancer using annual leave for appointments

Monday 08 January 2024

40% of people with cancer in the UK have used annual leave for their appointments rather than telling their employer it is for cancer treatment, according to a new survey from Maggie’s.

The survey, of 100 people with cancer, was conducted by OnePoll* on behalf of Maggie's to help understand how people with cancer can be better supported in the workplace by their employers and colleagues.

  • It also found that almost a quarter (22%) of people only told their colleagues about their diagnosis once it became apparent due to treatment. 
  • The main reasons for not telling colleagues were not wanting to be treated differently by colleagues (20%), worried it might distract colleagues and affect team productivity (20%) and wanting to keep medical condition private (20%). 
  • 10% of those surveyed did not feel supported by their employers when they told them about their diagnosis.

Mary Adeson, a 36-year-old auditor from South West London, was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2021. She said: “I thought I’d be able to carry on working through my treatment. I wanted to use work to stay focused and not let cancer consume me. I read about chemotherapy brain fog and it worried me; I knew I’d need to keep my mind active and sharp.

“I continued to work during my fertility treatment, but this became chaotic quickly. Appointments would overrun, meetings always needed to be moved. I once had to lock myself in a hospital changing room to take a meeting.  

“This helped me make the decision not to work through my cancer treatment. I was making my situation harder than it needed to be, especially when I have a supportive employer. The day I had my egg extraction was my last day at work.”

Rebecca Webster, a 50-year-old solicitor from Manchester, was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2022. She said: “I am fortunate that I have a good relationship with my employer, and I felt able to tell them about my cancer diagnosis straight away. 

“I’ve had to take a year off work due to surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment, and have been working on a phased return since October this year. My employers are aware that I will still need to take time for other appointments and treatment on an ongoing basis, but I think the fact that I have been open with my employer and work colleagues has allowed them to see what I’ve been going through, and they have shown great understanding and compassion towards me. 

“I would advise anyone thinking about going back to work after cancer treatment to really take their time, to only go back to work when they are ready and to go back on a phased return. I now work three days a week and I’m grateful for that because it takes three times longer now for me to do anything – chemotherapy and hormone treatment have come with many other side effects, which means it is taking me longer to get out of bed and to get ready for work in the morning.

I completed a 'Where Now?' course with Maggie’s and this really supported me to prepare me to go back to work mentally and physically.

 “Going back to work has had its upsides as well – I enjoy doing case work and I enjoy being back at my desk with other colleagues. Having other things to think about has given me a sense of normality as well.

“My tip for anyone speaking to their employer is to be as honest as possible, as once you have been off with a cancer diagnosis you become a protected person for the purposes of employment law. That means an employer cannot sack you due to your diagnosis; it would be unfair of an employer to treat you differently or change your job unless this was something you wanted them to do.”

Ian, 51, from Forth Valley was diagnosed with stage 4 oesophageal cancer in 2022. He said: “Having cancer was a shock for someone like me who had never had a sick day in their life. After I told my colleagues, I got an email from the sales team with lots of supportive messages. It put me in tears. Some people were quite awkward talking about cancer and I felt I had to reassure them that it was okay and I was happy for them to talk about it. 

“My employer actually handled my diagnosis and treatment quite well. I waited until after my first course of chemotherapy to work out a plan with the HR department. 

Yvonne, the centre head at Maggie’s Forth Valley, also helped to guide me and told me to see how it goes because there might be a point when I wouldn’t feel able to carry on. She reassured me that I didn’t have to work all the way through my treatment.

“I worked until my operation and then had six months to recover. During this time, the brain fog was overwhelming. To help with this I would write everything down. When I went back to work – on a bad day, I would shut my laptop down and drive to Maggie’s.” 

Dame Laura Lee, Chief Executive of Maggie’s, said: “Telling anyone you have cancer can be a really scary and overwhelming thing to do, but telling your employers and colleagues adds another level of stress.

“People coming into our centres tell us that they worry about job safety, being treated differently and knowing what they can or should say about taking time off for treatment and appointments, and these are all really valid worries that our staff can help with.  

“Everyone diagnosed with cancer should be aware that they have employment rights but also know that also they don’t have to tell colleagues until they’re ready, if at all.  

Our professional staff can help you figure out when the time is right to discuss your cancer, and what to say and to who. They can also advise on your rights, returning to work and financial support when you’re out of work.

How we can help

If you or someone you know is worried about a cancer diagnosis, we have expert staff in our centres available to help you. 

Research used must state as a reference:  

*OnePoll surveyed 100 UK adults living with cancer from 3 to 13 October 2023. 

The survey was conducted online using panel members who are credited to participate in surveys. Respondents who are currently living with cancer were targeted using screening questions and profile data in order to ensure the correct demographic was achieved. 

Last review: Jan 2024 | Next review: Jul 2024

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