Returning to work after treatment

After you have been through cancer treatment, it’s normal to look forward to returning to familiar routines, including work. Getting back to a normal pace of life can help to lift the spirits and move on from a difficult experience. The workplace can offer a renewed source of focus beyond cancer. But, starting work again can take some extra planning and courage. It is important to make sure that you are ready for this step.

Penny Brohn UK’s Living Well Courses have been shown to improve peoples’ quality of life for at least 12 months (1), also, our latest evidence (2) indicates that these courses have helped people to go on to feel more confident about asking for support in the workplace and make makes positive changes at work.

Planning ahead

Going back to work is not an option for every person living with the impact of cancer. Physical or emotional effects of cancer treatment can sometimes change or delay your plans. But if you do feel ready to return to work, talk to your doctor to find out if they think you are ready. Alternatively, you can book a 1:1 or phone-in doctor’s appointment at our National Centre.

Once you have your doctor’s approval, speak with your manager or HR department to arrange a meeting to discuss details about the timing of your return and what your daily schedule might be. It could be useful to see if they can help you to plan a phased return with part-time hours, time off for medical appointments or even job sharing on bigger tasks until you are ready to take on full-time work.

Adjusting physically

There can be lots of benefits to returning to work. Work can help to boost your self-confidence and provide valuable social interactions with peers, which may have been lacking during treatment. But, living with the impact of cancer can cause symptoms such as, fatigue, pain, confusion, and other treatment side effects. 69% of people in a recent Penny Brohn UK study said they had experienced physical difficulties when returning to work (2). The following ideas can help you adapt to these new limitations:

  • Take small breaks throughout the workday to boost your energy.
  • Use lists and alarms to remember important meetings or tasks. You could use something like Wunderlist to help you.
  • Discuss any concerns with your manager – they are there to help you.
  • Take breaks to take medication or see a doctor when you need them.
  • Change your hours or role to meet your current abilities.
  • Attend confidential counselling sessions to help deal with the emotional impact that cancer can have.
  • Read our Coping with Chemo information sheet to see what you can do to help with side effects.

Adjusting socially

48% of people surveyed at Penny Brohn UK said that having cancer had resulted in a significant loss of confidence when they returned to work (2).  Social interactions in the workplace can fill an important void for those who have to stop work for treatment. But, some colleagues may not respond well at first to your return. They may not be aware of why you have been gone, or indeed whether you want to talk about it. Keeping your explanation simple and positive will help you reconnect and will make others more comfortable, too.

You are within your rights to decide how much you want to share with your colleagues about your experience. Whilst there is no doubt about the power of talking, you should never feel like you are being pushed to say more than you are comfortable with. You may decide to tell everyone by email, mention it quietly to close colleagues, or simply ask your manager to report the news to relevant people only.

Sometimes, colleagues may ask questions or show sympathy in an effort to support you, which can sometimes feel awkward or uncomfortable. If this happens, it’s okay to have these feelings – don’t feel guilty. Explain that you’re grateful for their support but you’re not up to answering those questions right now.

There are lots of ways to make the process of returning to work after treatment as smooth as possible. Our Penny Brohn UK Living Well Courses have been shown (2) to help people making a successful transition back to work, by providing them with the tools to cope mentally and physically, and find resilience in the workplace. If you would like more advise on how to go about returning to work, our partners at Macmillan have a whole range of materials on the financial implications of cancer and returning to work as easily as possible.

Ref 1: Polley M, Jolliffe R, Boxell E, Zollman C, Jackson S, Seers H. Using a whole person approach to support people with cancer: a longitudinal, mixed-methods service evaluation. Integrative Cancer Therapies, 2016: 1-11. DOI: 10.1177/1534735416632060
Ref 2: Kasimati, K. (2017) Exploring the impact of the Penny Brohn UK Living Well Course on people living with or beyond the impact of on cancer work or active community role status, University of Bath Master’s thesis.

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