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Cancer in the workplace – Knowing your rights

A recent Lancet Medical Journal finding that South Africa can expect to see a 78 % increase in cancer cases by 2030 means that it is likely that cancer will affect most companies at some point in time. A cancer diagnosis can affect productivity, morale, and a company’s bottom line. Knowing how to navigate work-related issues of cancer such as informing your employer and/or colleagues, sick leave and benefit pay-outs is important.

Because more people are being diagnosed with cancer and the cure rates are increasing, cancer survivors are becoming increasingly more common in the workplace. Cancer can affect productivity, morale and finances of both the individual and the company, 2 so knowing how to navigate this journey is important for both parties.

Dr Jenny Sapire, the Clinical Standards Manager for Life Health Solutions says “by understanding cancer and its impact on the workplace, employers can create a more compassionate and supportive culture that promotes overall wellness. It's important for employees to understand their rights in the workplace environment, including access to reasonable accommodations and privacy laws. Providing resources and support can make a significant difference in an employee's ability to cope with cancer and return to work successfully."

What sick leave are you entitled to?

The Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) entitles all employees to a minimum of 30 days sick leave (if you work 5 days a week) or 36 days (if you work 6 days a week) over a 3-year period. 4,5 Other things to consider with regards to sick leave include:

  • This sick leave is available to you from the moment you start working at a company 4
  • The 36-month sick leave cycle runs from your commencement date, so it is different for every employee
  • It may be limited in the first 6 months to one day sick leave for every 26 days worked – this must be written in the employment contract 5
  • Unless you are absent for less than two consecutive days or less than 2 days in an 8-week period, you will require a doctor’s letter or medical certificate in order to be entitled to paid sick leave

What are your options if your sick leave is depleted?

Once your sick leave is depleted, there may be different options available to you, depending on your specific employer.

  • You can apply for paid annual leave if you have days available 5
  • You can apply for unpaid leave (NB! you need permission from your employer to take unpaid leave) 5
  • You can speak to your HR or line manager, or review your individual contract, to see if your company has extra policies or benefits in place such as:
    • Ex-gratia leave benefits
    • Extra sick leave benefits e.g. for cancer or HIV patients
    • Short-term disability programme or insurance (if you feel you are unable to work in the short term) 4

What are the possible options if you can no longer perform your job?

As an employee, you may not be dismissed or treated unfairly because you have been diagnosed with cancer. 4 The law states that there are only three reasons for which you can be dismissed: 4

  • Misconduct
  • Incapacity – either medical incapacity or poor work performance
  • Employer’s operational requirements

If your cancer diagnosis or treatment has materially affected your ability to perform your job on a permanent basis, your employer has a legal obligation to accommodate you and give you a reasonable chance to return to some other form of work. This accommodation can include changing your job title, position, or responsibilities, reducing your salary and/or removing some of your benefits. 4 These changes need to be discussed and agreed upon by both parties, otherwise it can constitute unfair labour practice. If you decline these changes, yet are still unable to perform your existing job, you may be at risk of your employer terminating your employment due to incapacity.

Lauren Pretorius, from Campaigning for Cancer, says there are generally three situations where an employee may not be able to return to their previous level of employment:

  • If the disease is terminal
  • If the treatment or the disease has resulted in permanent incapacity (mental or physical)
  • If the pain is unmanageable

If a company has permanent disability benefits in place, then this may assist an employee in leaving the workforce permanently. It is important to speak to your HR department about existing company policies and benefits, including dreaded disease cover and whether claiming for dreaded disease will affect your life cover.

What are your legal rights with respect to your privacy?

Bradley Workman-Davies, an attorney at Werksmans who specialises in labour and employment law, states that the Protection of Personal Information (POPI) Act No. 4/2013 provides protection for employees’ personal and special personal information (health). According to the POPI Act, an employer cannot disclose this information without consent from the affected employee. 6 This means that you can choose what to disclose to your employer and to whom and what they can tell a third party. Having said that, disclosure and adequate communication is a vital part of planning processes that need to take place in order to cover your absenteeism, sick leave, extended leave, work productivity and your phased return to work.

About Life Oncology 

Life Oncology is a dedicated oncology and radiotherapy service under the Life Healthcare network. Our prime objective is to revolutionise the cancer treatment journey by embracing a patient-centric and value-based model, supporting our patients and their families throughout their treatment journeys. To support this journey, we ensure that our care is coordinated, integrated, and personalised.

To download other cancer educational information, check the download section on the Life Oncology page here.

​The information is shared on condition that readers will make their own determination, including seeking advice from a healthcare professional. E&OE. Life Healthcare Group Ltd does not accept any responsibility for any loss or damage suffered by the reader as a result of the information provided.


  1. Sartorius K, Sartorius B, Govender PS, Sharma V, Sheriff A. The future cost of cancer in South Africa: An interdisciplinary cost management strategy. S Afr Med J 2016;106(10):949-950.
  2. Alexander Forbes Public Relations. Cancer Survivors in the Workplace. [online] [cited 2023 Feb 14]. Available from: URL:
  3. Chen W-L, Chen Y-Y, Wu W-T, Ho C-L, Wang C-C. Life expectancy estimations and determinants of return to work among cancer survivors over a 7-year period. Sci Rep 2022;11:12858.
  4. Campaigning for Cancer. Cancer @work: Employee Guide.
  5. Campaigning for Cancer. Cancer @work: Employer Guide.
  6. Republic of South Africa. No.4 of 2013: Protection of Personal Information Act, 2013. Gov Gaz 2013;581:37067.