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5 Things to Know About Returning to Work After Cancer Treatment

Cancer and its treatment is not for wimps. If you are reading this, you have likely been through chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy, hormone suppression therapy, surgery, or a combination of all of the above and a few others. Some of us have had daily and weekly appointments for years on end. For others it can involve one surgery and no other treatment at all. Regardless of what kind of cancer treatment experience you have had, it can be physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting.

Fast forward to now: the happy day when you are healthy and it’s finally time to return to work. Before you go back, here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Be kind to yourself. You have been through a war and come out the other side. Nevertheless, you may have some scars from the ordeal. Be gentle with yourself and know you will have hard times and good times, and that no one is expecting perfection. It’s also emotionally taxing because in the first few days everyone will want to chat and know how you are. This is because they care, but it can also be overwhelming. Being kind to yourself means knowing that this return to work will bring up feelings and letting yourself feel them. It means taking a break when you need one. It means having reasonable expectations of yourself.
  2. Pace yourself. If possible, ask for a graduated return to work. For example, if you worked full time, go back for three half-days to start, if your workplace is supportive of this. Do that for a couple of weeks, and then increase from there. This will allow your mind and body the time to adjust to a new daily routine. It doesn’t mean you will have a slower pace forever.
  3. Rest enough. Cancer-related fatigue can linger for months or years. Be sure you are sleeping enough and set an alarm for a healthy bedtime. As a night owl, I had to remind myself to get to bed by 10 p.m. For the first little while, you will need the extra sleep to keep up with the new pace and increased responsibilities.
  4. Don’t expect yourself to be exactly the same as you were before. Your ability and desire to keep up a frantic pace in a chaotic work environment may be gone. Or your former workplace may not be the best fit now. Many cancer survivors realize that their priorities have shifted after being ill. I used to worry about work late into the night, and this sometimes impacted my sleep. When I returned to work,  I realized that I didn’t worry as much about work. This didn’t mean I was going to slack off on the job, but it meant I wanted different things from the job than I had  before, and that’s OK.
  5. Ask for help. My family might be snickering at this particular suggestion because it took me a looooong time to figure that out. I was always ridiculously stubborn and determined to do things for myself. However, I finally did ask for help and it made such a difference. Be specific so that friends know exactly what they can do to help. If you need assistance with cleaning, let them know exactly what, e.g. “I can keep up with bathrooms but vacuuming tires me out,” or “I need a full house clean before returning to work.” If you need meals, let folks know if you or your family have allergies and if you need something for a particular day or if you need some meals that freeze well so you can have a stash ready to go. Better yet, if you are financially able, outsource these things. Get a meal delivery service for the first few weeks back so you don’t have to meal plan or shop, or get some takeout. Let all those people who wanted to help, do something now. It’s essential to remember that letting others help you is giving them a gift, not burdening them. It will help them to feel like they were able to contribute when you needed them.

These are just a few things that made my return to work a little easier. It’s a big transition, but with some planning and help, it can be a good one.

Getty photo by jacoblund