Cancer and the Workplace

The decision to return to work after cancer treatment or to work during treatment is a very personal one. The type of work that you do, the length of time that your treatment will last and the intensity of your side effects will all contribute to this decision. Your doctor is the best resource for helping determine when and if you are ready to return to work, but once you get the go ahead, there are still considerations to be made.


Evaluate Your Needs

For most cancer patients, some changes to the work schedule and work space are necessary, especially when first returning to work. Considering the stress and intensity of your job, any follow-up care that you will need and what type of transition you will need are important factors in evaluating what you will need to do in order to return to work. Here are some questions to consider:

-Do you need to decrease your workload?

-Is there someone available to help with your work responsibilities?

-Do you need to alter your work space or work attire?

-What time of day do you feel the best? Can you make your schedule around this time?

-Will your medications prevent you from driving to work or being alert at work?

-Can you work from home, either full or part time?

-Are you emotionally ready to handle the stress of returning to work?

Many people find that answering these questions can help make the transition back to work easier. Sometimes knowing your limits and understanding that being at work may not look the same as it always has, will make a huge difference in how smooth the transition is. Make a plan and know your individual needs. Everyone's experience is different.


How to Talk to Your Employer

Communication with your employer is a key factor during your transition back to work. Be open and honest about your needs. Explain any limitations that you feel you may have and be frank about what you realistically can and cannot do. Be up front about time off for appointments, breaks for taking medication or resting and any other scheduling needs.

It's important to keep the lines of communication open above and beyond the initial re-entry into the workplace. You may find that certain things are working well, while others are not. If you're pushing your limits and need to slow down or decrease your workload, let your employer know. Most employers will understand the need for flexibility during this time. Know that it's okay to ask for help.

The Americans With Disabilities Act considers limitations from the side effects of cancer related treatment to be covered under the statues of law. This means that if you are experiencing side effects from cancer, your employer must make reasonable accommodations to help you adjust when you return to work. This can include adjusting your hours, giving you alternate assignments or any other consideration to help you work productively despite any limitations you may have.

While some people choose not to divulge their cancer diagnosis publicly, when you tell your employer, you become eligible to be covered by Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) laws. FMLA applies to places of employment with more than 50 employees and can give you up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for medical reasons. This type of leave can be broken up into small increments or used in larger blocks of time depending on your needs.


Relating to Co-workers

Returning to work after a cancer related absence can bring about many emotions. You may feel anxious, awkward and hopeful all at once. It may feel like a relief to re-enter the workplace and surround yourself with activities and people that were once a large part of your day-to-day life. But lingering questions about how your co-workers will treat you after your absence can bring about anxiety.

Social interactions with co-workers may feel awkward for both you and your co-workers. While there is no right or wrong way to go about it, you can typically set the tone for how it will go and others will follow suit. If you're open and talkative about what you're going through, you may ease tension by inviting people's questions about your treatment. If you're more of a private person, just reassuring others that you're doing fine and going about your work as usual can create a relaxed atmosphere as well.

If you feel uncomfortable about a particular interaction or conversation, it is okay to say so. After all, you are returning to work to do your job, and your ability to do so should be respected by others.


Is Returning to Work the Right Thing For You?

There are some cases where a return to work is not the best option. For instance, you may be physically unable to do the same type of work that you did before cancer, or even work at all. However, many cancer patients feel that returning to work in some capacity helps to get them back into a regular routine post-treatment. It can also help to boost confidence by placing a focus on your abilities above and beyond cancer. You may also be looking forward to interaction with others that does not revolve around cancer.

No matter what you choose to do, exploring all of your options and knowing your own personal limitations is important. Returning to work is not always easy, but plenty of planning and preparation can help ease the transition.