Returning to Work After Cancer Treatment

Two people working on laptop“Kevin” is 51 and was recently treated for colon cancer. His leave of absence at work is almost over. As his return looms closer, he is increasingly anxious. He’s not feeling 100% yet. He still tires fairly easily and has been taking naps every afternoon. He’s not sure he can concentrate fully for extended periods of time. On top of his concerns about his abilities, there is the question about how much he has to tell people about why he has been gone. Does everyone need to know every detail?

Returning to work is a common source of stress for people coping with cancer. It’s important to know this because many people think that others have no problem with it, when, in reality, it is a significant adjustment for everyone. This column will look at three broad areas regarding this topic: physical adjustment, emotional adjustment, and focus/concentration.

Physical adjustment: Regardless of the type of treatment(s) you have had, your body has taken a blow. People often say, “I only had surgery (radiation, etc.). I don’t know why I’m so tired.” Any cancer treatment upsets the normal balance your body has. Even if you are in excellent shape and eat a healthy diet, your body still needs time to recover. Your body will tell you what it needs but you have to pay attention in order to hear it. Therefore, ideally, when returning to work, you will do so gradually, starting with half days a couple of days a week and then slowly building up to whatever a full schedule is for you. If you find you are getting more tired over time rather than less, cut back if you are able to, until your body catches up.

Emotional adjustment: While the active phase of your treatment may be over, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have to cope with having cancer any more. Going back to work helps to get you out of “cancer world,” where you are focused on cancer all the time, but it doesn’t remove you from there completely.

Before you return to work, make a plan for how you want to share information about your illness. Some people write an email (and may have their boss send it out) prior to their return giving information about their situation. How much information you include is entirely up to you. Some coworkers think they are entitled to know everything, even though they are not. As I’ve said previously, this is your illness. You get to choose what information you share and who you share it with. Your email may also include statements such as, “I really appreciate everyone’s support. While I know you may want to stop by my desk and ask how I’m doing, please don’t. I really want to focus on getting my work done, and if everyone stops by, it makes for a lot of interruptions.” Of course, another reason you don’t want people stopping by every 15 minutes is that you don’t want to have to repeatedly share your story. One person said every time she had to do so, it retraumatized her.

Hopefully you have one or two coworkers you can lean on for support. They can also run interference for you. Your email could say, “Bob and Glen are familiar with what is going on and can share information with you as needed.” This also sends the message that people can’t just pump them for details out of curiosity.

Focus/Concentration: This is another area where people think others are doing much better than they are. Fatigue makes it much more difficult to concentrate. Chemotherapy can make people feel “foggy,” and this can last long after treatment has ended. The longer you have been away from work, the longer it takes to get back into the swing of things, whether you have had cancer or not. While being a little anxious helps you to concentrate, being more anxious (i.e., about returning to work, about your job performance) lessens your ability to focus/concentrate. Depression also worsens focus/concentration, as do any troubling thoughts, such as family or relationship difficulties or financial concerns.

Conclusion: Returning to work after cancer treatment is a significant achievement. It is essential to pay attention to your body as you ideally ease your way back. Each person is different and, as such, his or her return to work will not look like anyone else’s. It is important to accept that. Forcing yourself to forge ahead at a pace that you are not ready for can ultimately result in needing to take even more time off from work, thus completely defeating the goal you were trying to achieve. Be patient with yourself.

Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.
-Oscar Wilde

Related articles:
Managing Fear and Uncertainty while Living with Cancer

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Norma Lee, MA, MD, LMFT, therapist in Bellevue, Washington

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • dex


    May 4th, 2012 at 11:19 AM

    I came back to work a year ago after a bout with prostrate cancer. The hardest part for me was feeling like people were looking at me only as the guy with cancer, and not just as me anymore. I have a hard time with letting cancer define who I am both to myself and to other people and I had a hard time sometimes letting them off the hook. I just wanted to be treated normal like everyone else. Yes I had cancer but that does not change who I am. I think that coworkers of cancer patients need to realize that we are all just looking for a sense of normalcy again- don’t treat us like a lightweight, we can take it. Believe me, if we have survived cancer than a little criticism at work just doesn’t sting the way that it used to.

  • Jake


    May 4th, 2012 at 2:40 PM

    For a lot of people, work is their escape from the real world if that makes any sense. It is here that they can be creative and bounce ideas off of one another and where they feel the most vibrant and needed. Cancer can be a big shock to those people, but maybe once they have taken care of the physical side, the emotional effects linger on. Maybe they don’t quite feel themselves or feel like work went on without them so maybe they aren’t as necessary as they once felt. It takes some getting used to getting back into the groove, and you are their co worker, I personally think that you should check in on them when they return, but after that, I guess if they want to talk about it they will and it is not up to me to push them into conversations that they don’t want to have.

  • Malika


    May 5th, 2012 at 4:45 AM

    After my mastectomy I went back to work within about 2 weeks. It was too soon, because physically I was okay with the work, but I was not emotionally and mentally ready for talking with my co workers, even though they had been nothing but kind and generous for me and my family. I had to take a little more time off even after I went back because I just couldn’t handle it.

  • clint grace

    clint grace

    May 6th, 2012 at 5:31 AM

    There have been so many times since I finished cancer treatments that I thought I was ready to take on the world.

    Til I got out there and realized how tired I was, not just physically but mentally too.

    We have to be aware of how much of a drain having cancer and fighting it can take out of you. It is not fun and pleasant and you do end up feeling like you have won the biggest fight of your life so you are ready to do anything.

    But take a little bit of extra time for you afterwards and savor the victory of having one more day. The day will come when you are strong enough to return to everyday life, but don’t push too hard too soon. It will only wear you down even more and take even longer for you to recover.

  • Collins


    May 7th, 2012 at 4:21 AM

    Some do jump right back in way too soon.
    But with some it is a way to escape the word cancer that hangs over their heads and gets them back to doing something that they love and a way to forget about being sick for a while.

  • Annabelle


    May 7th, 2012 at 5:08 PM

    I have never had to face anything like this, but I do know that even on a good day going to work can feel daunting. Going back to work after an extended abscence, even more difficult. And after cancer, whew! I can’t even imagine the things that you have to go through to get back to your normal life. But I am of the opinion that a big part of getting back to normal is getting back to the normal everyday things. You have to take that first step back, and the people who care about you will understand if it takes you a little more time than normal to get back to your groove. But you will get there, in time. One day at a time, just like your cancer journey.

  • lorraine


    May 7th, 2012 at 11:59 PM

    what I feel,from experience of a friend, is that more than the disorder or the after effects of the treatment it is the mind that makes it more and more tougher to get your life back on track.

    you may feel perfectly alright but your co-worker may just treat you like you are still sick.all this can hamper the getting back to normalcy and only a resolve to overcome all of this can help.

  • Sherio


    July 25th, 2012 at 9:12 AM

    After being off two years with colon cancer, one of the hardest part was returning to work ! I didn’t want to be the person who has / had cancer. So, instead of saying I had cancer, I just said I had some serious health issues and left it at that. The people I care about know the truth and that’s all that really matters. I find i’m not the same, it takes me longer to do some tasks and that i’m so tired after work. I’m sure in time it will get better. If I could beat cancer, I can handle this !

  • Samantha


    July 26th, 2012 at 8:50 PM

    This was really sort of helpful, I am actually planning to return to work next week after being gone for an extended period of time and the anxiety is eating away at me. I am terrified that after working through my cancer all this time that I was doing my job extremely poorly and now that I have had time off and am returning I am even more scared about returning to the standard of work excellence that my job requires. I do not mentally feel up to the challenges of my job yet even though I was cleared into remission 3 weeks ago. I am seeking out some counseling to help me sort these issues now that treatments are over, because during all my months of treatment I was kept so busy I didn’t have time to digest how any of this really left me feeling mentally or emotionally.

  • Sarah


    October 26th, 2016 at 2:17 AM

    I had breast cancer and was off work for a period of 10 months, I had surgery,chemo, radiotherapy, not only was it difficult to overcome my emotional trauma of losing hair, feeling poorly. I was determined to return to work as soon as possible. I felt strong and working with small children has helped me to recover well. Unfortunately since returning I am constantly over analysing every situation feeling useless and lost complete confidence in my ability to do my job. I know I am good at my job and love what I do, but felt I was starting a new battle . Undervaluing myself , comparing myself to others. It’s so difficult it’s taking me longer than I thought and I wasn’t prepared for this emotional trauma , thinking I would step back into the role I had before. I have to except I have changed and I see things very differently from others.
    I have read other people’s reviews on how they are feeling it was nice to know I’m not alone.
    I know I’ll get there but I don’t know how, I suppose it will be like my cancer journey, taking one day at a time and not thinking too far ahead and wanting it over!
    Everyone embraces life differently and I have learnt to be patient once again.

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