Half of cancer patients feel diagnosis negatively impacts career, ESRI study shows

The research was presented via a webinar, details (including presentation slides) can be found here.

Almost half of people returning to work after a cancer diagnosis reported that their diagnosis had a negative impact on their career, a new study reveals. Females, younger workers, the self-employed and those working in the public sector were more likely to report a negative impact.

Nearly half (46 per cent) of those that returned to employment identified health issues which affected their ability to return to work, according to the survey conducted by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) and funded by the Irish Cancer Society.

In general, respondents reported high levels of support from their organisation and manager on returning to work. However, a third of cancer patients and survivors surveyed reported negative experiences such as a reduction in salary or bonus (11 per cent) on their return or being overlooked for promotion (7 per cent).

The most commonly reported factors which facilitated a return to employment were a phased return (44 per cent), help and support from colleagues (43 per cent), help and support from employer/manager (41 per cent), and time off for medical appointments (40 per cent). 

The Returning to Employment Following a Diagnosis of Cancer report, which includes a survey based on responses from 377 people affected by cancer in the last decade, finds that while 7 in 10 people felt supported by both their employers and manager in returning to their job, nearly half of respondents felt that their cancer diagnosis negatively impacted career prospects.

Anne Marie Davy [55] from Galway returned to work in 2018 following major cancer surgery and says she can relate to many of the study’s findings through her own experiences since then.

“I wanted to get on with things and get back to normal, which was important to me, but there is a stigma. It frustrates me when people make presumptions about what I can and can’t do, and I find that someone in my position ends up often having to fight their own battles,” said Anne Marie.

While Anne Marie was one of over a quarter of respondents who cited maintaining or regaining a sense of normality as their main reason for returning to work, almost 4 in 10 referenced financial need as their main reason for returning, an area that must now be addressed according to Irish Cancer Society Director of Advocacy Rachel Morrogh:

“Returning to work after a cancer diagnosis is often very important in a patient’s recovery, as it restores a sense of purpose for many. It is concerning, however, that so many people felt they had to return to work sooner than they might have wished because of financial challenges. We know from previous research the crippling financial impact a diagnosis can have on people and their families. The Irish Cancer Society wants all patients to feel supported after a diagnosis, and their quality of life, finances and career prospects should not be affected by their illness.

“With this in mind, we have published a series of recommendations for Government, employers and trade unions, along with outlining actions the Irish Cancer Society will take. We have already established a new online benefits and entitlements hub with information on state supports for those taking time off work or returning to work. In the coming weeks and months, we will work in a spirit of partnership with a range of stakeholders, led by patients and survivors, to progress our recommendations.”

Dr Sheelah Connolly, lead ESRI researcher on the study, commented: “The research suggests that many people diagnosed with cancer have a relatively positive experience when returning to employment. However, returning to employment can be challenging for several reasons, including ongoing physical and mental health issues. Employers can facilitate the return through open communication with the employee and supporting a flexible return based on the individual’s needs.”


The survey included people diagnosed with cancer between 2010 and 2020, of whom 86 per cent had returned to employment at the time of completing the survey.

Implications for policy & practice from ESRI Returning to Employment Following a Diagnosis of Cancer report:

  • For employers: Open communication and allowing a flexible return are key facilitators of a successful return to employment for those diagnosed with cancer.
  • For Government: There is a key role for Government in ensuring that there are adequate financial supports in place to allow those diagnosed with cancer to return to employment only when they are ready.
  • The full report and recommendations are available here.

Recommendations from the Irish Cancer Society:

  • Government should legislate to ensure a statutory obligation for employers to provide sick leave pay
  • Establish a State-run pilot programme on reintegration into the workplace for those out of work at the time of their diagnosis/after their diagnosis
  • Introduce a new statutory payment for employees and self-employed people with chronic illness to attend medical appointments during work time
  • Employers should agree a flexible ‘Returning to Work plan’ with employees returning to work after a cancer diagnosis
  • Full list of Irish Cancer Society recommendations arising from this report are available here.