The majority of cancer survivors are still of working age—more than 3 million in fact. For those of you who took time off during treatment, I know the transition back to work can be difficult, regardless of whether it’s full-time, part-time or an entirely new career.
Though re-entering the workforce can be intimidating, those who have made the leap find the experience has been largely positive.
A dear reader wrote to me recently telling me that returning to work was a challenge not for reasons that you would think. It was challenging because colleagues treated her differently based on her changed appearance. Further, assumptions were made about her ability to perform her job, so much so in fact that she was offered the duties of a lesser level than she has previously been. As if having breast cancer) isn’t bad enough. I mean, really.
While returning to work isn’t for everyone, it does contain many positives. I know I’ve talked to several survivors who welcome a return to their regular schedule. According to an article in Coping with Cancer:
“Many studies show that returning to work may contribute to cancer survivors’ emotional and financial well-being. Besides income, it provides satisfaction, social support and the opportunity to interact with co-workers and colleagues. Continuing to work productively can be vital to your sense of well-being, as it is a reminder that you do have a life apart from cancer. Being a valued employee or trusted co-worker may be a helpful distraction from … cancer treatments and follow-up appointments.”
So, the question that she asked was: “What strategies/advice do you or your readers have about returning to work and ensuring that you are treated fairly in the process of returning to full health?”
Well, as you can imagine, I have a lot to say on this topic, but first of all, I have to express how bummed I am that this happened to her. I have a feeling that this situation is all too common, though.
The thing of it is that even though the public’s understanding of cancer is getting better, sometimes prejudices and fears are still found in the workplace. Even after your cancer treatment has ended, people may face work and workplace discrimination issues.
I’m a big fan of getting OFF of Isolation Island as soon as humanely possible and one great way to do so is to re-enter the working world. It helps boost self-esteem and maintain your identity. It’s also nice to have regular contact with people. Oh, and a paycheck is a lovely Silver Lining.
So, when you go back to work, here are a few of my personal recommendations:
Communicate. Talk with your employer about options for returning. For example, if you feel strong enough (& have the sign-off from your doctors), you may be able to go back to your previous position in a full-time capacity. However, starting slower might be better for you. For example, flex-time or telecommunicating could be more viable options.
Don’t Overshare. Keep work life just that: work life. Keep any stories about your cancer experience to yourself, at least at work. If someone brings it up, you can say something like, “Thanks for asking; however, I’d really like to keep that part of my life separate from my professional one. I’m just so happy to be back.”
Be Patient with not only yourself but also with your co-workers. Having you back will be an adjustment for them as well. Remember, work (& life!) goes on while we are getting treatment. Your co-workers picked up your job responsibilities while you were gone, so showing them a little appreciation would go along way.
Keep Notes. If the discrimination is readily apparent and consistent, keep detailed notes (including names, dates and times) of every encounter. Otherwise, it becomes a case of “he said, she said” and that never works out well for anyone.
There are legal protections.
You have the same rights as anyone else in the workplace and should be given equal opportunities, regardless of whether you tell people at work about your cancer.
Hiring, promotion, and how you are treated in the workplace depends entirely on your abilities and qualifications. As long as you are able to fulfill your job duties, you cannot be fired for being sick. You should also not have to accept a position you never would have considered before your illness. Some people with job problems related to cancer are protected by laws like the Jamaican with Disabilities Act. Other people also benefit from the Medical Leave.
This lets many people with serious illnesses take unpaid leave to get medical care or manage their symptoms. Talk to someone in your human resources department or another workplace expert to find out what your options are.
If you’re looking at returning to work, then YAH for you! However, it can also be daunting and stressful. To ensure a smooth transition, please take care of the physical and emotional needs that you may have.
Do you all have any thoughts or ideas that you would like to share about how to work with colleagues?
Starting a New Career
Some patients decide against returning to a previous job and instead seek a new career. While your history with cancer should have no bearing on your chances of landing a new job, there are a couple things you might want to think about before putting yourself out there.
First, if your cancer caused you to take significant time off work, you might want to reorganize your resume so that it highlights your job skills and qualifications rather than your chronological employment history. Another subtle yet truthful way to handle this is to leave off specific dates of employment and instead list your years of service with each previous employer.
Second, it’s a good idea to rehearse responses to interview questions. Interviewers cannot legally ask about your medical history, but they may, for example, ask what you’ve been up to for the last several months. You’ll feel better if you know in advance exactly how you want to reply.
Tips for Success
Going back to a work is a complex topic and a personal choice, but I like to boil it down to just a few actionable tips
- Work slowly and smartly: Work at a slow, steady pace, and build in rest periods throughout the day to avoid fatigue. Prioritizing your tasks and delegating what you can will help you preserve your energy.
- Communicate: If you decide to share your cancer history with your co-workers, regularly update them about your workload. If you’re going through a rough patch, ask for help. Then return the favor when you’re feeling more rested.
- Get comfortable: Wear loose, breathable clothing; sit in a supportive chair; and maintain good posture to keep your physical self as comfortable as possible. It’s also smart to rearrange your work space to allow for easier access to supplies if you have any new physical limitations.
- Fuel your body: Drink plenty of water and eat well.
Returning to work can help cancer patients with their recovery from cancer.
Going back to work can give patients a feeling that they are returning to normality and can improve well-being and quality of life, Returning to work is a key patient outcome.
It is about regaining a sense of purpose and getting back to normality. Healthcare professionals need to be aware of that and to help them get the support and advice they need. Employers may need to learn about how to assist their employees as they return to work.
It revealed that many patients struggle with ‘invisible’ symptoms like fatigue and difficulty concentrating when they return to work.
Survey respondents reported feeling tired when they first went back and said they had difficulty concentrating.
They generally agreed that a return to work is much easier if employers are supportive and have a good understanding of their limitations and the possible hidden side-effects of their conventional treatment.
As a result, it is suggested that it can help patients if their doctor or nurse explains the long-term effects of their treatment when contacting their employer at the time of their return to work.
Giving employers information can be very helpful – they need to know how long it can take for a patient to recover from their treatment so that they can be sympathetic to that.
While it is important to help patients return to work, it is also important to prepare them for the possibility of having to take further time off if they become unwell and for the fact that they may have to return to a less prestigious or demanding role than that which they left before their illness.
Some patients will never get back to work full time and it can be hard, especially for young people who were going to do very well and suddenly find themselves in less well paid and prestigious jobs than they anticipated.
Henny Braund, Chief Executive at Anthony Nolan, commented: “For post-transplant patients, going back to work is a key milestone. It represents a return to normality, a chance to feel useful again, and an opportunity to focus on something aside from recovery. Returning to work is a key part of an active lifestyle, and it’s been associated with improved general well-being and a higher quality of life.
“Unfortunately, the journey back to employment is rarely simple for those who are dealing with the physical and psychological impact of a transplant as we discovered from the findings of this report. Patients told us that it is vital that employers offer phased returns to work and that they are aware of, and sympathetic to, some of the difficulties that patients can experience even once their formal treatment has ended.
Lastly, it’s important to understand that you’re not alone; Don’t forget that you are part of a community of so many other cancer survivors and thrivers. The transition back into the workforce is a big one, so it can be helpful to seek out a counselor or support group full of people in similar situations. Help is always around if you look for it!
What has been your experience returning to work after a cancer diagnosis?