A couple of weeks ago I hosted a tweetchat for Macmillan to help people with cancer learn about their rights when they go back to work. I was amazed at how little I knew when I had my first meeting about returning to work.

No-one tells you this, and unless you find it on a website (such as Macmillan, which has so much useful information), you may never find out what you’re entitled to. This is even more important if your employer doesn’t know that cancer patients have to be treated differently.

Firstly, you do NOT have to tell your employer that you have cancer, and if you change jobs after your cancer diagnosis, you don’t have to tell your new employer. However, if you don’t tell them, it may not be in your best interests. Why? Well, anyone with cancer is classes as Disabled under the Equality Act 2010, and is entitled to all the rights laid out in that Act. If your employer doesn’t know, then they can’t treat you accordingly. The NHS has a great page about this here.

Often, people feel they are being discriminated against, and this shouldn’t happen – again, because of the Equality Act. It may simply be that your employer doesn’t know about the Act, but if you have concerns about discrimination, please give the Macmillan support line a call to discuss further (0808 808 0000, Mon-Fri, 9am-8pm). Your employer can’t force you to go back to work until you are fit. This decision should be made by your GP and Occupational Health, if necessary.

Do you need to take sick leave or annual leave for treatment if you have cancer? If you are eligible for sick leave, you should take it, and your employers can’t force you to take annual leave instead. Any statutory holidays that aren’t used because of illness can be carried over to the next year. If you are ill just before / during a holiday, you can take sick leave instead. There is no legal obligation for your employer to provide cover so you can go to hospital follow-up appointments. You may have to take sick leave or annual leave if you don’t have friendly colleagues who will cover for you.

Some of us may find that we can’t return to our old working patterns because of the side effects of treatment. If you need to ask for regular breaks or to work part-time, can your employer refuse this? No they can’t, not at first. They have to be seen to make reasonable adjustments to help you return to work. Macmillan tell you about your Rights at Work. You can request reduced hours as part of the reasonable adjustment, and can find out more in pages 6-8 of this Disability Law Service Document.

If you’re a parent with a sick child, what are your rights when it comes to taking extended time off to care for your child? Macmillan to the rescue again. You have rights at work and there are laws in place to support you. If you need to take time off work to look after someone in your family with cancer and have 26 weeks’ continuous service, you have a statutory right to request flexible working.

It may seem worse if you are self-employed or a freelance worker, and Macmillan has a lot of information about self-employment and cancer, although the links aren’t working at the moment, but it’s really easy to find on their website, including information working during treatment or choosing to give up work temporarily.

And finally, what if you work with someone who has returned to work after being treated for cancer. What do you say? How do you treat them? It’s very simple. Keep in touch whilst they are off sick. Be normal and respect their privacy. Often colleagues find out that someone has had cancer without being told directly by the person themselves. Don’t ask too many personal questions. I imagine that when most people return to work they want to fit back into their normal working life, and not spend their days talking about their illness. Been there, done that – time to move on. Macmillan have more information on how to support a colleague on their website.

I hope this has all been helpful. I wish I had known a lot of this before I started thinking about returning to work. I wasn’t ready to hear it when I was first diagnosed, and I didn’t realise Macmillan had so much information to offer. Lets empower cancer patients and make sure that we’re not discriminated against. Good luck!