Returning to Work After Cancer

August 11, 2016
Nicole Van Hoey, PharmD

When cancer treatments end, you may look forward to returning to familiar routines, including work. The workplace can offer a renewed source of focus and purpose beyond cancer. But, starting work again takes some extra planning to make sure that you are ready for and comfortable with the transition. share on twitter 

Planning Your Return

Going back to work is not an option for every cancer survivor. Sometimes, physical, mental, or emotional effects of cancer treatment change or delay your work plans. If you do feel ready to return to work, the first step is to get your doctor’s approval. The timing of your return to work depends on:

  • The long-term side effects of your treatment

  • The physical demands or stress of your job

  • Your need for follow-up care

If your doctor approves, reach out to your human resources department or your supervisor to arrange an in-person or telephone meeting. You should discuss details about the timing of your return and what your daily work schedule will be like. Creative scheduling options can help you transition successfully back to work. Examples include:

  • Part-time hours when you first return

  • Flex time that allows leave for medical appointments

  • Job sharing on important projects until you are ready for full-time work

  • Unpaid medical leave

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) applies to many workplaces, including private companies with at least 50 employees, and provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off for health reasons. FMLA leave may be taken in small amounts, like hours or days. If you did not use all of your FMLA benefits during cancer treatment, you may be able to use some afterward for medical reasons.

As a cancer survivor, you decide how much to share with coworkers about your treatment experience and work leave. Like your schedule and workload, your first social interactions should be planned out before you return. You may decide to tell everyone by email, tell only colleagues on your projects, or ask a manager or HR professional to help explain your return or accommodations.

Adjusting Physically to Work

There are many benefits to returning to work. Work boosts self-confidence and provides valuable social interactions with peers. But, as a cancer survivor, you may experience fatigue, pain, cognitive problems, and other treatment side effects. Some small changes can help you adapt to these new limitations when you are at work:

  • Take small breaks to keep your  energy up throughout the workday

  • Use lists and alarms to remember important meetings or tasks

  • Discuss concerns with your manager

Don’t be afraid to mention difficulties you may experience that are caused by your cancer or treatment. Limitations from cancer treatment side effects are considered disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), so employers must provide reasonable accommodations, such as:

  • Setting work breaks to take medication, see a doctor, or reduce cancer fatigue

  • Assigning you to a position that better fits your new hours or abilities

  • Providing access to an employee assistance program for confidential counseling

Adjusting Socially to the Workplace

Social interactions in the workplace can fill an important void for cancer survivors who stop work for treatment. But, some coworkers may not respond well at first to your return. They may be confused about why you left or concerned about how your return will affect their jobs. Keeping your explanation simple and positive will help you reconnect and will make coworkers more comfortable, too.

Sometimes, coworkers may ask questions or show sympathy in an effort to support you, but it makes you feel uncomfortable. For example, they may want to throw you a party when you return to work. If this happens, it’s okay to have these feelings. Tell your coworkers that you’re not up to answering those questions or receiving this kind of support right now.

Returning to work after cancer treatment is not always easy. But, with careful planning and openness, work can be a source of pride and socialization again.


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