My cancer treatment is done – but, am I ready to return to work?

By Cancer Foundation on May 5 / 2017


It’s a question our Cancer Coaching team often hears from cancer survivors:  when is the right time to return to work after medical treatment.  While each person and their situation are unique, here is a checklist of things you should consider BEFORE heading back to the office:

Is my body ready? Take stock of the physical symptoms you are experiencing, such as persistent fatigue and pain. Notice how your energy levels fluctuate throughout the course of the day and the week. For example, do you need to nap in the afternoon to make it through the day? Is an outing to the grocery store exhausting? Have you found strategies that help you manage your pain or fatigue? It takes time to heal and recondition post cancer treatment.

Is my mind ready? Impairments in focus and cognition can linger for months. Are you struggling with memory, word retrieval and organization? “Brain fog” is very real for many cancer survivors and tends to be worse with fatigue and stress. Are you able to sustain a conversation for more than 15 minutes? Do you find it difficult to read and retain the information, even when you focus on just one page at a time?

Am I emotionally ready? Cancer treatment affects the whole person, mind, body and spirit. You may look like your old self on the outside, but still be healing on the inside. Emotions that have been put to the back burner may come to the forefront when treatment is over, coupled with uncertainty about the future. What is your gut telling you concerning how ready you feel emotionally to go back to work? Are medications such as hormones or steroids impacting your mood and sleep? Have you spoken to your health care professionals about these side effects and found strategies to improve sleep and manage your stress and fears of cancer recurrence?

Can I manage the workload?  Reflect on the physical, cognitive and emotional demands of your work. Not just the tasks you do in a given day, but also relationships with colleagues and clients, and the type of environment you work in. Factor in other stressors too, like time spent preparing yourself and your family for the work week, commuting and out of town traveling.

Can accommodations be made? Consider the nature of your workplace. How flexible will your employer be when it comes to accommodating your transition and ongoing recovery post cancer treatment? Will you be able to take time off for appointments? Is working from home or adjusting work hours an option? Have others returned to your workplace after a diagnosis of cancer, and if so, what was their experience?

Do I have a circle of support? Talk to your oncology team, family doctor or nurse practitioner, family, friends, trusted colleagues and other cancer survivors about returning to work. They will have different perspectives and can help with the process.

Have I checked in with myself? Keep in mind that you know yourself best. No matter what your health team, your insurance company, and even people close to you say, only you will know when you are truly ready to return to work. Trust your gut. Of course, tapping into this feeling may involve some soul searching if there are aspects of your current job that negatively impact your health and well-being.

Has my confidence taken a hit? It can be challenging to get back on the horse when you are not feeling like your old self. How are you feeling about post-treatment changes in your body, mind and

spirit? Are you worried that you will be treated differently in the workplace or that you will be unable to keep up with the demands?

What if l never feel like my old self again?  Cancer is a life altering experience. Your perspectives on health, work and relationships may have radically changed. It can take some time to come to terms with the experience and the “new normal” of life after cancer

What do I need to know? Find out what changes have happened in the workplace in your absence. Besides the evolving knowledge and skills pertinent to your job, you need to know about your rights as a cancer survivor returning to work. You may consider participating in a Work and Cancer Survivorship group here at the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation in order to be more informed about legal aspects, accommodations, and how to best communicate with your health care team, insurance carrier and your employer about your return to work plan.

How should I time work re-entry? Consider a gradual return, starting with a few hours of week and gradually lengthening the hours of work. It may be a lot more tiring than you anticipate.  Be mindful of seasonal variations in your work place. For example, you may not want to return at a time where a lot of staff are away on holidays, or at fiscal year-end.

Will I be able to maintain a healthy lifestyle and work-life balance? Positive lifestyle changes you have made to stay healthy and prevent recurrence can easily fly out the window when you re-enter the rat race of work. Consider meeting with a Cancer Coach to talk about integrating sustainable self-care habits into your return to work plan, such as eating well, managing stress and staying active.

What is my financial bottom line? Regardless of where you are at with the questions above, there may be pressing financial considerations driving you to return to work before you are ready.  It may be worthwhile to have a frank discussion with the people close to you and to a financial planner about your personal situation. There may be cost-saving avenues you have not considered.

If you or someone you love is struggling with a decision around returning to work – please reach out to the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation’s Cancer Coaching program. 

We can help.

Back to Blog Listing