Returning to work after cancer

Oncology Case Management Nurse at Bupa UK
06 February 2017

If you’ve successfully come through cancer treatment you may well be thinking about returning to work. It’s natural if this brings mixed emotions – from relief or even excitement at being back to ‘normal life’, to worries about whether you’ll cope.

An older woman working at a laptop

Why go back to work?

Of course going back to work gives you an income – and this may be your main reason for returning. But there are lots of good reasons to get back to work after being treated for cancer.

For some, returning to work is a way of getting back to normality. After living through the disruption that cancer causes, it can be comforting to resume your previous routine. Work may also give you a sense of purpose and boost your self esteem. It allows you to think about something other than your own health for a while. And if you’ve been feeling isolated then you may enjoy being around people again.

In general working is good for your health. Returning to work after cancer can be an important step on your road to recovery.

Planning your return

It’s natural to feel a little anxious about returning to work after such a major experience as cancer. So it may help to plan your return ahead of time.

Stay in contact with your employer and set a schedule with them for your likely return. Talk to them about any changes that will help you return. These might be changes to the hours you work, the type of work you do or to your workspace. Having a phased return, where you gradually increase your hours, will allow you to pace yourself. Make sure your employer knows that cancer treatment can leave a person feeling tired for weeks or months afterwards.

Think ahead about how you’ll juggle your other responsibilities with work. It’s important for everyone to keep a healthy work-life balance, and especially for someone recovering from a major illness.

Being back with colleagues

You may find it a little daunting facing colleagues and friends at work after having cancer. You may worry you won’t be able to cope with people’s sympathy. Or maybe you won’t know what to say when asked about your absence.

It’s up to you what you tell people and who you confide in. Try and think it through beforehand so that you’re ready for questions. It may be easiest to prepare a simple, positive explanation about your absence. Let people know if you’d rather not talk about it further.

And be aware that some people may feel awkward – not knowing how to react when cancer is mentioned. It may remind them of their own personal or family experiences. Some people may even avoid you for a while.

It may not be easy

Some people find returning to work after cancer straightforward. For others it may be harder.

If you’ve had cancer you’ve probably been through a difficult experience and you may not find it easy to readjust to the daily routine of work. You may feel emotionally drained and physically exhausted at times. It may be hard to concentrate and focus on what you’re doing. Some people feel very self-conscious as they rejoin their colleagues. You may wonder if you are still up to the job.

Everyone is different, reacting to serious illness in their own way. Be kind to yourself and accept the support of others. Try to have patience. You’ve come through a stressful experience and it’s natural for it to take some time to settle into work routine.

Getting support

If you’re finding things difficult you may find it helps to get some advice and support. Maybe talk to a counsellor or join a local cancer support group or an online community. You can find out more about these from your GP surgery or charities such as Macmillan, (who also have a telephone helpline – 0808 808 0000).

You can read more about cancer on Bupa’s Health Information cancer page, which features free expert advice on a range of topics, including adjusting to life after treatment and tips on coping at home and work with cancer.

Louise Spence
Oncology Case Management Nurse at Bupa UK

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