Purpose The increase of flexible employment in European labour markets has contributed to workers’ risk of job loss. For sick-listed workers with chronic illnesses, such as cancer, and especially those without an employment contract, participation in therapeutic work may be an important step towards paid employment. The purpose of this study was to determine the role of therapeutic employment as facilitator for return to paid work, in a cohort of sick-listed cancer survivors (CSs) with and without an employment contract. Methods In this longitudinal study, data were used from a cohort of Dutch CSs (N = 192), who applied for disability benefits after 2 years of sick leave. The primary outcome measure was return to paid work after 1 year. Logistic regression analysis was applied. Results Of the participating CSs (mean age 50.7 years, 33 % male), 69 % had an employment contract at baseline. CSs without an employment contract participated significantly less in therapeutic work (p < 0.001) and were less likely to return to paid work after 1 year (p = 0.001), than those with a contract. Participation in therapeutic work significantly increased the chance of return to paid work after 1 year (OR 6.97; 95 % CI 2.94–16.51), adjusted for age, gender, level of work disability and having an employment contract. Conclusions Participation in therapeutic work could be an important facilitator for return to paid work in sick-listed CSs. The effectiveness of therapeutic work as a means to return to paid employment for sick-listed workers should be studied in an experimental setting.