Cancer and work – an Occupational Therapy View. Gerard McFeely

The balancing act between personal and work life is difficult enough at the best of times without taking into account something as life changing as a cancer diagnosis.


An increasing number of people in the UK are living with cancer, juggling work alongside healthcare and treatment. Enhanced and earlier diagnosis, better detection rates and successful treatments means that it is something which will become more and more common. By 2030 it is estimated by Macmillan Cancer Support that more than 3 million people will be living with cancer in the United Kingdom. Some 700,000 of this group will be of working age and many will have jobs, striving to remain in work throughout their cancer treatments or attempting to return to work after cancer treatments.


Evidence suggests that cancer patients consider work integration as an important factor to them in their recovery, not least for reasons associated with financial security, but also as a marker related to getting back to normality. Research evidence suggests however that work integration and job retention can be difficult for cancer patients, often with late referral to occupational health providers and an absence of support from employers (Wynn & Woodcock,2011).  Greater collaborations will be needed in the future with more person-centred approaches integrating clinical interventions with work related case management, if return to work rates of cancer survivors are to improve. Historically, a diagnosis of cancer has strong associations with unemployment (Taskila,2007).


Society and employers need to facilitate cancer survivors’ work integration as a pressing matter, and take on board the equality duties that go with these statistics. This means evolving new and better disability strategies that provide clear, detailed and specific assessment of employee work ability and specific attention to reasonable adjustments that are proactive rather than merely advisory.Perhaps this cannot be expected to come from occupational health services and the duty of vocational rehabilitation needs to sit with the NHS. Either way early and supportive intervention appears to be the answer.

If you want to know more about the pioneering work that Macmillan Cancer Support is developing on vocational rehabilitation see the links below. You can also contact Gerry on


Gerard is a Macmillan Consultant Occupational Therapist specialising in vocational rehabilitation. He is also Chair of the College of Occupational Therapists specialist section on work.