Work looks different for everyone during cancer treatment. Some keep working full- or part-time, while many find treatment itself to be a full-time job.
While it’s a huge milestone, returning to work after a cancer diagnosis can be physically and mentally challenging. Regardless of what your relationship to work was like prior to cancer, the transition back to the rhythm of daily work can bring up a lot of feelings including excitement, hope, uncertainty, and worry.
Furthermore, few employers have been trained on the challenges of survivorship, and therefore lack tools to help survivors make this transition seamlessly. Often survivors are asked questions like, “Let us know what you need!” or “How can we help?”. These are well-intentioned sentiments: the problem is that most survivors have never attempted this transition before, and thus can’t possibly anticipate all of their needs beforehand.
With this in mind, we asked survivors about their experiences at work, and designed a few guiding principles to help ease this transition:
Go slowly at first
It may be tempting to dive back into work headfirst: and, in fact, many survivors find themselves doing this as a way to put distance between themselves and their experience with cancer. It’s important to pace yourself, tune in with your brain and body as you go, and figure out what’s working for you. Set mental and physical breaks for yourself during the day, and stick to them. Feel OK about setting limits, and saying “no” to things. You can always scale up your work once you are in a rhythm.
Communication is key
Many survivors find it awkward or overwhelming to navigate which information their colleagues should know about their treatment. You should feel free to decide upfront how you want to tell your cancer story, and to whom. And that can change over time! Most survivors find it helpful if their immediate supervisor is aware of what happened, but other than that—the decision of whom you should tell is completely personal. It can also help to map out your upcoming medical visits and communicate the schedule early. This will help prevent feelings of stress and enable you to prioritize your health during the workday. If there are individuals in your workplace who you know have navigated this transition after cancer, consider reaching out to them and hearing their story/what they found particularly helpful.
Be gentle with yourself
You have undergone the life-changing experience of a cancer diagnosis. Go easy on yourself and be mindful of your expectations when it comes to your relationship to your work. Often people don’t realize the physical or emotional toll of their experience until they are trying to get back into the cadence of “regular” life. The experience of cancer can be life-changing—you may look or feel mentally or emotionally different- and the adjustment to this new reality can take awhile. Furthermore, one poll found up to 30% of survivors change careers after their diagnosis: likely due to a combination of interests and goals shifting as a result of the experience. Feel free to explore how your goals may or may not have changed!
Know your resources
There are a number of organizations focused on empowering cancer survivors to successfully transition back to the workplace. “NED”, or Not Entirely Dead, is a social enterprise that helps survivors frame their time spent on cancer treatment—which can manifest as a blank space in their CV—into a powerful summary of overcoming adversity. Cancer and Careers has a ton of resources including a resume review service, free online career coaching, educational publications and events to help survivors and their caregivers navigate the workplace. If you find yourself navigating the legal ramifications of being diagnosed or needing accommodations at work, Triage Cancer is a free service that provides support and information about legal protections to patients and their caregivers/co-survivors.
Whatever the transition back to work looks like for you, just know you have a huge community of survivors rooting for you at VivorCare. You’ve got this! And on the days you feel like you really don’t: we’ll still be here, cheering you on.