work and cancer

Back to work after cancer: part 2

Returning to work after a cancer diagnosis is widely considered an important part of the healing process when some sense of normality returns with the daily routine of going to work. Nowadays some people even choose to continue working for a variety of reasons such as financial concerns, being self-employed or even some feel that it may have an impact on their career prospects. Pending on the type of job and how physically or mentally challenging it may be seems to determine whether sick leave is taken or not. Whatever the situation, time off will be necessary for appointments or chemotherapy and it is helpful to be aware of what your entitlements are when treatment is over.

The sick leave entitlements in work will probably determine how long you can take off before it becomes a financial burden. Check your company’s policy on sick leave and also  factor in future sick leave for small illnesses that may occur after treatment is over.   One study did suggest that if treatment involves chemotherapy it seemed to more than double sick leave taken, which is probably no surprise to most!  A diagnosis of cancer is covered under the Equality Act and from what I have read most developed countries have cancer included as a disability. This offers protection for people, especially in the workforce, where reasonable accommodations must be made to facilitate a working environment conducive to the employee.

If you have read Back to work after cancer: part 1  which looked at how I found it a particularly stressful time in my life second time round even more so than dealing with a recurrence. After treatment for my primary diagnosis, I was looking forward to going back to work at the time. It was lovely to meet all my work colleagues again and despite feeling very tired and truthfully exhausted some days I felt fulfilled and grateful to be getting back to myself again.
With my recurrence and because I am triple negative I needed chemotherapy as well as surgery once again. This time around I found it more difficult to recover. I allowed myself two years to feel better again based on my previous experience but I didn’t factor in the long term effects of second line treatment and of course I was older too.
I have been lucky with both episodes and had very helpful line managers who accommodated me as much as they could within the constraints a working organisation can. If you have any difficulty within your organisation or with your line manager it may be helpful to contact your union representative. Within Ireland there is a useful document Policies to assist workers with breast cancer and other illnesses to enable both employee and union representative to negotiate a return to work plan and it is worth reading even if not living in this country.

Based on some research and my own personal experience the following are some factors to consider when you are thinking of returning to work.

  • Are you recovered enough to be physically able to carry out the job?
  • What have you learned from your experience that you can bring with you to your job and what may prevent you from carrying out your job?
  • Find out if there are any supports available in the workplace that will assist your rehabilitation.
  • At your interview ask your line manager what are their expectations and you can tell them what yours are.
  • If unclear ask them to repeat and explain.   At the end of the interview, give a synopsis of what you have agreed and then arrange to have it in writing.
  • Most companies need you to be assessed by an Occupational Health doctor prior to commencing work after a long term illness.
  • Once Occupational Health is satisfied, set your date for return to work- it is helpful to have a fixed date to make arrangements for childcare and be psychologically prepared.
  • Meet your colleagues prior to your return date and informally tell them you are returning so that they are prepared for you!.

First day back.
This day can be both exciting and daunting!  No one is expecting much from you on your first day  from my experience, so don’t be too hard on yourself.    You will find that your colleagues are genuinely pleased to see you return,  so graciously accept all the goodwill on your first day  as work will get back to normal pretty soon afterwards!
Be prepared for feeling exhausted, this is normal and you will adjust and adapt as time goes on.
Prepare meals in advance and make no plans for the evenings after you have being working, except some gentle exercise like walking.
Some days will be better than others, and with your family and colleagues to  support you through this change, the good days will become more frequent.

As time goes on, hopefully your energy levels will improve and work will become fulfilling again. There is nothing to compare to the feeling of being “normal” and  even when I experienced early  morning starts, I felt grateful to be just doing ordinary everyday things like travelling to work.

Here are some links that will give more information on your rights on return to work for specific countries

Employment and cancer- Ireland

Macmillan your rights at work- England

American cancer society -returning to work

Australian cancer society







Banning, M. (2011) Employment and breast cancer: a metaethnography. European Journal of Cancer Care. 20(6): 708-19.
Ganem, G. et al (2016) Maintaining professional activity during breast cancer treatment. European Journal of Cancer Care. 25(3): 458-65.
Kennedy, al (2007) Returning to work following cancer: a qualitative exploratory study into the experience of returning to work following cancer. European Journal of Cancer Care. 16(1) 17-25.
Stergiou,-Kita, M. (2016) Am i ready to return to work? Assisting cancer survivors to determine work readiness. Journal of Cancer Survivorship. 10(4):699-710.

7 thoughts on “Back to work after cancer: part 2”

  1. Diagnosis 1/2015 with Triple Negative Breast Cancer. I decided I wanted to be happy and I switched to a new position. I cried before and after work. I did not realize how much body muscle and just physical strength I lost. Now, I am dealing with alot of joint pain. My brain is telling me get back to work… you will start feeling like yourself again. My body is telling me to stop and slow down. Its driving me crazy. I dont like being in pain.


    1. Thank you for sharing your story. I understand exactly how you feel! Check out my post “when work doesn’t work out”. Get professional advice through counselling services and see if your workplace can accommodate you for awhile. The Occupational health service may also help. Only when you have explored all your options can you decide what to do. Whatever your decision, be satisfied that you explored all options and ” know” what is right for you. I wish you well x


      1. Thank you for your response. I will be checking out your post. I have started counseling. I am a educated person. I know what I need to do, to make this situation better. I believe fear has taken over. Panic and anxiety attacks. On top of that I have joint pain and going through menaposal. I sweat all the time. It’s embarrassing. I have recently taken a leave of absence from work. I got to figure out what is going on.

        Liked by 1 person

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