One of the many challenges that those with a cancer diagnosis face is how it affects their “normal” life, in particular how it impacts work. For many cancer survivors, going through treatment means taking time off of work, leaving their job, modifying how they do their job, or changing careers completely.
From the day we receive our diagnosis a million questions run through our head. “What’s the treatment like?” “What is my prognosis?” “How will I afford my treatment?” “Can I still work?” “What do I do now?” The list goes on and on. For me, it felt like the rug had been pulled from under my feet in regards to my career. I had finally gotten licensed as a pharmacist in Canada and was settling in to my new job when I got diagnosed. Just a few months in and I had to take medical leave for an unknown amount of time.
Not everyone has this luxury. Depending on where you are getting treatment and your circumstances, there are some cancer patients who have to keep working in order to afford treatment, keep their insurance, support their families, or to avoid losing their jobs. I feel fortunate I was able to take medical leave for as long as I needed without the worry that my job would be there when I was ready to return.
Now on to the main topic of this post: returning to work.
There are many challenges to returning to work after being on medical leave for cancer treatment.
The effects of cancer and the various treatments can leave you with lingering effects even long after the treatment has ended. It’s not as simple as feeling tired and needing a coffee to perk up but rather feeling fatigued and drained from even the simplest of tasks. It takes more brain power to complete tasks that may have been routine before. As a result it takes more mental energy (and often physical energy) and thus we are hit with extreme fatigue. This makes it more difficult to go right back to the way we worked before being diagnosed and we have to ease back in. A gradual return to work plan is key to managing the fatigue I found.
2. Brain Fog
I plan to do a full post about brain fog at some point, but it is a term for the mental cloudiness and cognitive changes that often occur throughout the cancer “journey” (I do not like referring to cancer as a journey but cannot think of a better word at the moment). It can be caused by treatments such as chemo and radiation, the cancer itself, or any of the many challenges that cancer patients face. It results in memory problems, decreased ability to focus, trouble with multi-tasking, and so much more. My least favorite brain fog symptom is spontaneously forgetting basic words. I will frequently have trouble grabbing a word in my head and putting it into speech, which leaves me fumbling. Symptoms of brain fog can improve over time but some people may deal with it for the rest of their lives. This can make returning to work a challenge. I know it was a big concern for me when I was returning. Would I have trouble remembering what I had learned? Would it be challenging talking to patients? How would my ability to multi-task be? These were all big concerns of mine. I sometimes have difficulty finding my words while I am talking on the phone or counseling a patient, but it has been manageable. I do have some difficulty with focusing when I am in busier stores as all of the stimulation pulls my attention. I find it is best when I focus on finishing a task before taking on another to avoid forgetting what I was doing and getting distracted.
3. Physical limitations
Depending on cancer type and the treatment, there may be physical limitations that make going back to work more difficult. Could be loss of muscle mass, recovering from surgery, peripheral neuropathy, vision changes, oxygen requirements, etc. this list goes on and on. Your body is not the same after going through cancer treatment and this can affect your ability to go back to work and even how you work. One concern of mine was the peripheral neuropathy I have in my fingers. While it was pretty mild for me, I found that my fine motor skills were affected. I was nervous about providing injections to patients, but I took the time to practice and did diamond painting and knitting to strengthen my hands and was able to improve my fine motor skills.
Being diagnosed with cancer causes and worsens anxiety in so many areas. The anxiety around returning to work for some may be so great that it impacts their ability to get back to work or to do their jobs efficiently. It may be the nervousness to do their jobs but also the social aspect. If you took time off of work to go through treatment, returning may spark a lot of questions. Other times it is the looks of pity or toxic positivity that increase anxiety. Not everyone wants to share their experience. Some may not know how to share what they went through with coworkers. How much information is too much information? When do I bring it up? Do I bring it up? Should I sugar coat it? All of these questions float in our heads and cause a lot of anxiety around going back to work.
One of the most important aspects of returning to work is being able to create a plan that is specific to your individual needs and making sure there is open communication between you and your employer. No two cancer experiences are the same and so a return to work strategy that works for one person may not work for another. It is so important to be able to come up with a plan tailored to you. For example I was able to work with my company to gradually ease back in and slowly increase my hours as tolerated. Being able to communicate what worked for me was crucial to being able to come back to my job successfully.
These are not the only challenges that cancer survivors face when returning to work, but I felt they were some of the biggies. It took me a couple of months to write this post, so if it doesn’t seem cohesive I’m sorry. Feel free to ask questions or share your own experience with returning to work after being diagnosed with cancer.