Background: This study aimed to systematically review and synthesise qualitative studies of employment and cancer. Methods: A rigorous systematic review and meta-synthesis process was followed. A total of 13233 papers were retrieved from eight databases; 69 were deemed relevant following title and abstract appraisal. Four further publications were identified via contact with key authors. Screening of full texts resulted in the retention of 25 publications from six countries, which were included in the synthesis. Results: Studies consistently indicate that for people with cancer, 'work' forms a central basis for self-identity and self-esteem, provides financial security, forms and maintains social relationships, and represents an individual's abilities, talents and health. Work is therefore more than paid employment. Its importance to individuals rests on the relative value survivors place on these constituent functions. The desirability, importance and subsequent interpretation of individuals' experience of 'return to work' appears to be influenced by the ways in which cancer affects these functions or goals of 'work'. Our synthesis draws these complex elements into a heuristic model to help illustrate and communicate these inter-relationships. Conclusion: The concept of 'return to work' may be overly simplistic, and as a result, misleading. The proposed benefits previously ascribed to 'return to work' may only be achieved through consideration of the specific meaning and role of work to the individual. Interventions to address work-related issues need to be person-centred, acknowledging the work-related outcomes that are important to the individual. A conceptual and operational shift towards supporting survivors to identify and achieve their 'work-related goals' may be more appropriate.