Cancer Overview

Cancer is a condition which affects the reproduction of cells in certain parts of the body. These cells can grow out of control and destroy health tissue and organs. It can spread throughout the body, even if it begins in only one area, such as the breast. 1 in 2 people in the UK will be diagnosed with cancer at some point during their life.

What are the signs and symptoms of cancer?

Different types of changes in the body can be an early warning sign that someone has cancer. These will vary depending on how far the cancer has developed and what part of the body the cancer Is affecting:

  • A lump in the breast could be a sign of breast cancer (a lump elsewhere could also be a sign of cancer in that part of the body)
  • Changes in bowel habits, such as blood in stools, which could be a sign of bowel cancer
  • A change in the appearance of a mole, such as darkening or crusting
  • Unexplained weight loss.

The most common types of cancer in the UK are breast cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer and bowel cancer. There are more than 200 types of cancer.

How does cancer get diagnosed and treated?

If someone notices a change to a part of their body that they suspect may be cancer, they should go to their GP who can refer them for testing, often a biopsy. This is when a small sample of the suspect area is cut away and tested for cancer cells.

If necessary, treatment can then start. Surgery to remove the tumour is often the first course of action, before chemotherapy or radiotherapy to kill any remaining cells and to therefore stop the cancer spreading or returning.

Chemotherapy is a strong course of drugs administered intravenously or in tablet form over a number of weeks. Its most recognised side effect is hair loss, along with nausea and increased risk of developing infections. Someone undergoing a course of chemotherapy will also experience extreme fatigue, which will often prevent them being able to attend work as normal.

Radiotherapy is the use of high-energy X-rays which are carefully targeted at the cancerous area to kill cancer cells but avoid the healthy cells nearby. This reduces side effects, but the person can still experience fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite and sore skin.

There are a few ways to determine a cancer diagnosis which requires reasonable adjustments:

  • An employee is not legally obliged to disclose their cancer by law, although it may be easier to so that time can be taken off to attend appointments and receive treatment.
  • Even if the employee does not wish to, or have to, disclose their cancer, an employer can focus on making reasonable adjustments, rather than seeking to determine the precise disability their employee has.
  • Given that cancer can return once someone has been cured – called remission – regular communication with the employee who has had cancer, especially if they have only recently returned to work, is key.

What reasonable adjustments are possible with cancer?

Employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments for employees with cancer if they know, are aware of, or could ‘reasonably be expected to know’ that the employee has, or has had, cancer. Most employees will tell their employer what reasonable adjustments they need. They often involve simple changes in the way an employer might usually do things.

People with cancer are entitled to reasonable adjustments made on the part of their employer, as it is a condition which has a long-term adverse effect on their ability to go about their normal duties – both owing to the invasive nature of treatment and the likelihood that the cancer will return.

If the employee does not disclose a health issue or disability which may affect their performance upfront, an employer should broach the subject sensitively if they suspect that there may be a disability behind the employee’s reduced performance. Reasonable adjustments can then be made in accordance with the employee’s needs, including, in the case of cancer:

  • Accommodating home or remote working: this can help if the employee is undergoing treatment which may affect their energy levels, but is still able to work. This can also be a good idea if someone is returning to work after a long period of sick leave.
  • Adjustment of duties so that work which requires greater physical or mental output can be allocated to a colleague and the employee with cancer can perform lighter duties for which they are better equipped.
  • Making sure there is a flexible break schedule and easy bathroom access: for employees with cancer who may have increased levels of fatigue and/or need to use the bathroom more often, which can be a side effect of treatments.
  • Adjusting deadlines: to accommodate any decrease in productivity that the employee may have as a result of their cancer treatment.
  • Raise awareness: for the employees with cancer to be better understood in the workplace, and to make employees feel comfortable with asking for help related to their cancer.

Cancer Signposting 

Cancer Research UK – charity funding specialist healthcare professionals to offer the best cancer treatment and support, as well as helping develop public policy on treatment and prevention and carrying out world-class cancer research (0808 800 4040).

Macmillan Cancer Support – charity providing physical, financial and emotional support to people from their diagnosis all the way through cancer treatment, as well as the latest information and research to help people and their families throughout their cancer journey (0808 808 00 00).

Working with Cancer – organisation supporting cancer survivors and employers achieve the goal of keeping those recovering and recovered from cancer in work and therefore, financially independent with special consultancy advice and training services (07910 835585).

Other Research Resources

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