Work is such a big part of our lives. For most people who are diagnosed with cancer, stepping away from work becomes a necessary step as the focus becomes on removing or reducing the tumor and healing the body. It is often not something you were anticipating or choosing, to leave the structure of your daily routine and to walk into the unknown. Going through cancer treatment can bring up a myriad of feelings, decisions you need to make and new challenges to navigate.
Following cancer treatment, you may begin to look to the future and wonder what going back to work will be like. For some, it is about feeling a sense of normalcy again and reconnecting with colleagues and a world and profession that you’ve truly missed. For others, it is something else entirely; walking back into a work environment that is stressful, unhealthy, maybe even toxic, or where you feel, even more so, that you don’t belong. Some people may realize that they don’t want to go back to the same work environment or they may not be able to, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes cancer makes you realize that this isn’t working for you anymore and it’s time to pivot towards something new.
For many, regardless of how you feel about work and where you’re at, there are concerns about finding work/life balance, figuring out if you’re truly ready to return to work and managing work while also wanting to keep potentially new healthy habits you’ve introduced into your life to care for your body and mind. Many people may also be coping with side effects that they weren’t prepared for, even many months following treatment: cancer-related fatigue, cancer-related brain fog, anxiety and fear of cancer recurrence, lymphedema, neuropathy, sleep issues and more.
Here are a few tips to help you as you navigate concerns around work following cancer treatment:
-Take your time. If you can afford to, don’t rush back to work quite yet if you are just finishing cancer treatment. It takes time for both your body and your heart to recover from what just happen. Invest in taking care of yourself, both physically and emotionally. Evaluate what your energy is like before thinking of going back to work. It’s about more than just energy though. Is your body ready? Is your mind ready? Are you emotionally ready? Can you manage the workload? Can accommodations be made in your workplace if you need them? Do you have a circle of support? Have you checked in with yourself? These are all good questions to ask yourself.
-When you do go back to work, make sure you develop a gradual return to work schedule that feels right to you. Talk to your family doctor for help in creating a schedule. It’s going to take more than just a few weeks so plan for at least 8 to 12 weeks before being back to work full time, preferably even longer if you can.
– Some people will tell you after cancer that you look great and may say that it looks like things are back to normal. When people say this, it may be triggering and upsetting because you may not feel good inside. You’ve been through a lot after all and that person may not recognize that are coping with side effects that are not visible and that you have been changed, in some way, by going through cancer. Most people, in coming out of a difficult life experience, are not the same. Prepare for how you want to respond to this. Recognize as well that because people may see you and think you look good, they may expect more of you that you can actually provide and you may expect more of yourself, which can set you up for disappointment. Know that it takes time and that if you are coping with side effects that are not visible, you need to be kind to yourself and realistic in your expectations and educate others if needed.
-Find out more about cancer-related fatigue. If you find that you are exhausted following cancer treatment, please know that this is very common. Cancer-related fatigue is different from normal fatigue. Both are characterized by feeling tired, but cancer-related fatigue has been described by patients as unusual, excessive, a whole body experience, unrelated to how much or how little they do and not helped by rest or sleep. This kind of fatigue can last for months following cancer treatment, sometimes even longer. It affects about 70% to 90% of people who have had cancer. One helpful resource is Dr. Mike Evans’ video on cancer-related fatigue, which provides you with some helpful tips: https://www.reframehealthlab.com/cancer-fatigue/
-Find out more about cancer-related brain fog. If you are noticing changes with memory, attention and concentration, spatial skills, verbal skills or executive functions (eg. Mental calculation, strategic processing, planning, organization, multi-tasking), these may be related to brain fog. This is a common side effect following cancer treatment and may last several months. If this is impacting you in your daily life, talk to a professional like an occupational therapist with experience in cancer-related brain fog or consider taking a Brain fog course through Wellspring: https://wellspring.ca/online-programs/programs/all-programs/brain-fog/
-Recognize that fear of cancer recurrence is normal. Most people worry about the cancer coming back. If you’re noticing however that you have a lot more anxiety since your cancer diagnosis or the fear of recurrence is impacting you in your daily life and is often on your mind, please know that getting support will be important. Connect with a reputable therapist with experience in oncology and helping people manage fear of cancer recurrence. Some of the most effective treatment modalities include Acceptance and Commitment therapy, Cognitive Existential interventions, and Cognitive Behavioral therapy.
-Setting boundaries and finding work/life balance after cancer is not easy. A first tip around boundary setting is to not commit in the moment if you’re not sure and to let the person know that you will reflect on this and see if it’s something you are able to take on or not. This gives you time to reflect and prepare your answer, whatever it may be. It moves you from reacting to responding. It is in creating that space that we can truly ensure that we are making decisions that are right for us.
-Find out more about other return to work challenges and strategies for coping by visiting https://www.cancerandwork.ca/ This website was designed to address the unique needs of people living with cancer with returning, remaining, changing work or looking for work after a diagnosis of cancer. The articles have been written by oncology professionals who have an expertise with return to work issues and provides helpful advice to help you navigate work life after cancer.
Many people after cancer, as they prepare to return to work, start to reflect on what they’ve been through, on what has changed for them since being diagnosed with cancer and what remains the same. The world may look different in some ways. You may want different things or it may make the voice stronger in your head on what you truly want and need, that voice that was there before but has become stronger now. Take time to connect with yourself, to feel, to grieve and to discover what is important to you and what you need to do or let go of in order to make this happen.
If you are looking for support or exercises to help you do this reflective work or to take action at work (like setting boundaries or saying no, developing a better work/life balance or figuring out what now if this is really not the right job for you), or to help you in managing the emotions that come with cancer including managing fear of cancer recurrence, please feel free to reach out to me.