How to Work Through and After Cancer Treatment
When you’re first diagnosed with cancer, one of the first things you likely think about is how your treatment will affect your work life. You may be worried about how much time you’ll need to take off, how your coworkers will react, or whether you’ll be able to continue doing your job. Fortunately, most people can return to work during or after cancer treatment with a few modifications. We gathered tips and recommendations to help you get prepared — whether you are going back to work full-time or part-time. Including how to prepare for a meeting with your boss, how to stay on top of work, dealing with chemo brain and learning about your rights at work.
Things to Keep in Mind
There are a few things to keep in mind when you go back to work, whether it’s during your cancer treatment or after. It’s easy to assume we can jump back into life as it was and assume our bodies and minds will follow after a cancer diagnosis. Knowing what to expect might help make the transition back to work a little easier.
It’s normal to feel physically and mentally fatigued from your cancer treatment, and this can last for more than a year. So if you find yourself feeling mentally and physically tired often, or feeling tired after doing even the simplest of tasks, don’t beat yourself up for it! If there was ever a time to give yourself grace, this is it!
Unfortunately, the fatigue will gradually worsen if you’re actively undergoing any cancer treatments. Many of us experience multiple side effects that make it extra challenging to work beyond fatigue; here is a good reference for a complete list of side effects. Some go away quickly, and some can last for months, so it’s important to take good care of your body, mind, and soul during this journey.
Self-care also includes getting a good amount of sleep, not stressing too much, staying active in doing things you enjoy, and staying away from activities and people that weigh you down. Finding your tribe, your people, and a community where you feel heard, seen, and understood is probably one of the most common tips we hear from other survivors. This is the time to put yourself first without feeling guilty.
How to Speak to My Boss About Returning to Work?
Getting the green light from the doctor allowing you to work again is so thrilling and a big milestone worth celebrating! And yes, it can be overwhelming at the same time. Here are some tips to help you prepare to make the return to work a bit easier.
When you contact your employer, think ahead about what information you want to share and what information you need from them. For example:
Think through what you’ll share about your current health condition.
What are the different side effects you’re facing? How to manage them at work?
Will you go back full-time or part-time?
What work accommodations will help you transition back into your role?
Clarify the job responsibilities and discuss if you need support with the workload.
Who else needs to know about your diagnosis, and how will that information be communicated?
Inquire about any disability programs, flexibility in working hours, benefits for cancer patients, and support groups within the company.
Read about your employment rights ahead of meeting with your employer.
Next up is how you will deal with your coworkers. It can be tough explaining things, so you can prepare how and what you want to disclose.
Here are other tips that can help alleviate anxiety about returning to work. Talking to a friend, a counselor, or joining a support group can make this process easier. Talking to cancer survivors and learning about their experiences may help you feel stronger, supported, and understood.
Just in case, it’s best to be prepared to deal with their misconceptions. Most people aren’t aware of what cancer entails and how it affects a person. You can prepare yourself by making a list of possible reactions and responses you will get from your co-workers and what you can say to them. Remember, it may take some time to get used to the idea of a co-worker being diagnosed with cancer.
These responses can include pity, discomfort, fear, confusion, avoidance, support, sympathy, understanding, and love. Some reactions will surprise you, and some will overwhelm you, but hopefully in a good way.
How to Stay on Top of My Work?
Certain work accommodations can help you stay on top of your work after your cancer treatment. If your work desk is near anything that can expose you to toxins, let your employer know so they can accommodate you somewhere else.
Your brain is your priority, and it only deserves a healthy environment. If you feel overwhelmed by the crowd or loud noise, make sure you find a place where you can work in peace. Otherwise, not only will you be unable to work, but you may also feel more fatigued.
You can request a comfortable chair and have your office desk be near a ventilated area with lots of natural light coming in. This will keep you refreshed and allow your mind to focus. In a small congested area, you might feel suffocated and unable to work.
Prioritize Self Care at Work
It’s important to drink and eat healthy, especially during your work hours. Don’t put off lunch or breakfast, and make it the first thing on your to-do list. Breathe and relax when you find yourself being too stressed.
Speak Up for Yourself
Lastly, get comfortable with speaking up for yourself. This is needed now more than ever. If someone at work is distracting you, ask them to keep things quiet or leave you alone. Asking someone to give you some space may feel unforgettable at first but it will get easier with time as you practice prioritizing your well-being.
Try Different Productivity Tips
If you think your tasks are overwhelming, try asking your boss to reduce them while you are recovering. If even the smallest tasks are stressing you out, you can try making a list of your tasks. List down your tasks in order of priority and work on the easiest task first. Completing one task will boost your confidence and set you up to complete the second task and so on. When working on a particular task, avoid thinking about the other tasks on your list. Focus on one thing at a time. 😊
Another tip from a fellow cancer survivor is to break up the workday into smaller time blocks between 45 to 60 minutes long. Take a 15 to 20-minute break in between work blocks to recharge. During the breaks try out different mindfulness techniques to give your brain a boost, here is one that was suggested by our community called Release from Brendon Burchard.
You can set up your work environment in a way that helps you focus and boosts your concentration. Clear out your workspace and only have the materials needed to complete the task at hand. Place your work materials, phone, keys, pens, headset, etc. in the same place always to avoid the frustration of having to search for commonly used items. Create a music playlist (avoid lyrics if you want) and listen to the same playlist when you feel like you can’t concentrate at work.
Working through chemo brain is draining, here are other ideas that may help. Use the repeating things loudly to yourself technique to remember things. Ask trusted colleagues to help review your work to see if you’ve missed anything. And keep one notepad (physical or on your phone) to track tasks or notes that come up during meetings or conversations, minimizing the number of items you need to remember. You can also use tools on your phone to help you during work. Your alarms, alerts, reminders, voice memos, and notifications can be used as memory assistants. Use your calendar to remind you of important meetings or deadlines. And designate specific times to work on email and voice mails.
Manage Chemo Brain at Work
Feeling tired or finding it difficult to focus and remember things is actually a very common complaint shared by patients referred to as Chemo brain. Focusing on self-care and prioritizing things like nutrition, movement, and mindfulness can help make the treatment side effects more manageable.
Here are some tips that may help you get through the day.
- Consume healthy foods so you feel energized and strong. Even if you lose your appetite, try snacking on healthy snacks or small meals so you are getting all the protein, healthy carbohydrates, and nutrients your body needs.
- Chemo brain has a lot of brain fog which increases with alcohol or tobacco. Avoid these things altogether.
- Practice “focus” exercises. Take a few minutes a day and practice grounding techniques like, using your senses to focus on things you hear, then things you see, then things you smell. This helps to calm the mind.
- Exercise your brain with puzzles, learn a new hobby, or play memory games.
- Make sleep a priority. This will make it easier for your brain to focus, remember things, and learn new things. Finding out your ideal sleep hours per night and tracking them is recommended. There are many tools now to help measure sleep like watches, iPhones, and Oura ring, to name a few.
- Get your body moving. Find opportunities throughout your workday to exercise. You can walk around the office or a nearby park and maybe even dance a little when no one’s watching.
- And last but not least, ask for help. Find people at work you trust and who can help you when you feel extra tired at work.
Learn About Your Rights
Understanding your rights is always a good idea and there are several resources available to get you started:
- The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act. There is also the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), where you can get paid or unpaid leaves to manage your medical condition, treatments, and symptoms.
- Cancer Legal Resource Center provides information about maintaining employment through treatment, accessing healthcare and government benefits, taking medical leave, and estate planning.
- Triage Cancer provides free education on the legal and practical issues that may impact individuals diagnosed with cancer and their caregivers
The content shared above is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. My CareCrew does not have any affiliation with the organizations listed.
Transitioning back to work is a big milestone during the cancer journey. And having a little extra help from family and friends may just be the support you need. Our free My CareCrew Apple and Android app can help! Use the Help Requests feature on the app to share, with your loved ones, the specific support you need most, like school runs, meals, errands, and more. So check us out today! Our app is free with zero ads!
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