Advice From Our Community

Should I tell my clients I have cancer?

Should I tell my clients I have cancer?

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Nia is a freelance content designer in Cardiff working with organisations like Scope and the RNLI. She was also diagnosed with breast cancer at age 32.


I’ve been fortunate that, for the past four or five years, repeat work and referrals have kept me busy. There have been some quiet periods, but I’ve usually relished them, trusting that there’s always more work in the pipeline.


Until I was diagnosed with cancer.


I made some hasty decisions which made life a lot more difficult a few months on.


Yes, it’s a cliché, but cancer is an emotional rollercoaster: some mornings you wake feeling that the world is ending; other days, you’re gripped by a fierce determination to carry on with life as normal.

Once I was more informed about treatment and finally feeling in control, I’d already told a number of people I worked with on a regular basis. Of course, they were great. Shocked and sympathetic, they encouraged me to focus on getting better.


But what I hadn’t realised so early on was that they’d stop sending work my way, perhaps afraid that they were adding to my burden. As a result, I lost a few regular projects which had become my main source of income.


Things got busy with treatment, and I didn’t have the time or energy to chase. Inevitably, work ground to a halt.


I needed to continue working, for my sanity more than anything, but also because bills don’t pay themselves, as we all know. Looking back, there are a few things I would have done differently.


Should I let clients know? The pros and cons

On the one hand, letting people know your situation can help:


alleviate stress — clients will be more understanding if you ask for flexibility with deadlines or need to pass on a project.

avoid uncomfortable conversations — if you’re in a particularly sensitive place, letting people know can help avoid awkward or upsetting comments said without thinking.

prompt payment — it’s likely that clients will be more attentive overall and pay you on time too.

On the other hand, telling your clients may lead to:

less work — this one sucks, but clients may not want to burden you with work, unaware that you’ll then be burdened with financial stress instead.

a change in perception — another unfair one, but they may see you differently and even think that you’re now unreliable.


Some things to think about

If you’re in a similar situation and have no idea what to do, give yourself some time. It’s likely that you’ll feel differently day by day, so if you don’t have any urgent projects on the go, give yourself some time to think. You don’t need to do anything hasty.


Here are a few things you might also want to consider.

Your treatment and schedule — as frustrating as it is, cancer treatment like chemotherapy affects everyone differently, and it’s impossible to know how you’ll be feeling once you start. But knowing your treatment schedule can help you work out how much you can handle if you choose to continue working.


Financial advice — ask your doctor who you should speak with to get financial advice. Your local cancer centre or hospital may have a welfare team who can help you understand what benefits you might be entitled to, and even assist with the form-filling. Macmillan also have a section on their website for the self-employed. It’s worth doing early on if you don’t know how your treatment will affect your ability to work.


Who to tell and how — health problems are personal, and you don’t have to tell everyone about them. But letting clients know that you have something personal going on may help them understand if you can’t commit to a project or need to take time off. I mostly communicate with clients by email, so it felt natural to do it this way. A phone conversation can be difficult if you’re not quite ready to say the words out loud. (‘I have cancer’ takes some time getting used to.)


Trust your instinct — if your gut is telling you that you’re over-committing or you feel any anxiety about whether you can work, it’s probably best to trust yourself. Cancer treatment is stressful enough without worrying about deadlines on top of that.


Team up with another freelancer — if you know other freelancers who work in similar fields, consider collaborating on projects. This way, you’ll be able to retain projects, and know that someone has your back. Just be sure to draw up a clear contract between you that outlines your agreement, and brief each other thoroughly.


When I turned down a couple of projects last September, I felt pretty bad about it. So I asked the client if I could contact them in the new year to see how things were going and if they needed any help. They welcomed the suggestion, and it gave me a straightforward opportunity to get back in touch with people after treatment.


I won’t sugarcoat it: building up work again after a quiet spell takes some determination. But trust that things will get better, and don’t be scared of reaching out for help and support.


If you’re going through something similar, check out Nia's other posts and feel free to get in touch with her at


It’s About Time is an initiative developed by NatWest Cymru in conjunction with Darwin Gray Solicitors, the University of South Wales (USW), Bizmums, and the Federation of Small Businesses. Research carried out by USW showed that women in business mentioned ‘time’ as a major factor in their lives – whether literally never having enough of it, or finding the right time to launch a business and the right time to grow a business.


The It’s About Time series of blogs and articles is designed to inspire, inform and educate through the stories of women (and men) who are finding their own routes to professional and personal success. It is put together by Gemma Collins, NatWest Cymru’s business growth enabler for Cardiff.


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