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Returning to work after breast cancer

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February 19, 2020

Challenges and tips for a smooth transition

Returning to work is an important step in breast cancer remission. It's natural to feel nervous about it, especially if you've been away for several months. Following active treatments, as much as possible, the process involves paving the way for a successful reintegration. A flexible and supportive work environment are integral components for a seamless return.

Taking a break, to better move forward

When faced with a breast cancer diagnosis, those who have the option to stop working usually take a break. Treatment plans can last up to a year, or even longer depending on the situation. This time frame may be necessary to focus all of your energy on recovery. Diseases often force us to take a break from our normally hectic daily routines. Allow yourself this break time to refocus on yourself and the aspects of your life that matter most.

A cancer diagnosis can cause you to question yourself a lot, especially when it comes to employment. It can cause some people to reconsider their career and work values, and they may decide that changing jobs is an opportunity for a fresh start. Others may seek to reduce work-related stress or a job that is more meaningful to them. Finally, returning to the same job is not always possible, often due to a change in physical or mental capacities, for example.

You are in the best position to know if you are ready to return to work or not. Take your time in deciding on the option that suits you best.

The emotional roller coaster of returning to work: between apprehension and excitement

Once the active treatment period is over, returning to work is motivating for some, as it means a return to "normalcy." For others, it is a worrisome and frightening step. In both cases, returning to work can be challenging.

One of the major difficulties encountered is caused by the discrepancy between one's idea of returning to work and the practical realities. There is a misconception that everything will be the same, although many things may have changed, starting with you. Your energy level may be lower, you may have new physical constraints, etc. The team and conditions of your workplace may have evolved as well. Anticipating these changes can help you develop the necessary coping mechanisms.

The possible effects of treatments on employment

Cancer treatments may affect some job-related abilities, either temporarily or more permanently. These residual effects can be physical, psychological, or cognitive. Take the time to identify such challenges and mention them to your health care team. Below are some of the possible after-effects of treatments.

Tips for a smooth return

Carefully preparing your return to work can go a long way in ensuring a flawless transition.

During treatments:

  • If possible, try to maintain a good relationship with your workplace during treatments. Keeping in touch with your co-workers may make it easier for you to return to work.

At the end of treatments (when you feel ready):

  • Initiate steps to return to your job. Involve your health care team and employer to support you and make the process easier.  

A few weeks before returning to work:

  • Pretend you've already gone back to work. Get up early enough to leave for work at the regular time, dress in clothing you normally wear to work, practise the commute to work, and perform similar tasks. For example, if you have a desk job, try to resume the habit of spending a few hours a day sitting in front of a computer.
  • Adopt a healthy lifestyle. Getting enough sleep, exercising, and maintaining a healthy diet will help you get back to work.

Back at work:

  • Be gentle with yourself. Have realistic goals. Give yourself time – it may take longer than anticipated to get back to your full potential.
  • Take the first step when interacting with your colleagues. Sometimes people don't know how to deal with someone recovering from cancer. Take the initiative to break the ice.
  • Start with a reduced workload. Decrease your work hours, then gradually increase them according to your abilities.
  • Keep up to date on any changes in your duties or company policies.
  • Know how to recognize and accept the worst days, accounting for both physical and mental limitations. This ability is essential in maintaining your peace of mind.
  • Break, break, and break. Rest is essential for building up strength. Increase the frequency of short breaks of 5 to 10 minutes between each hour of work.
  • Maintain lifestyle habits that strike a healthy balance.

Familiarize yourself with your rights as an employee

Sometimes, people being treated for cancer face discrimination when they return to work (layoffs, demotions, denial of illness benefits and time off for medical appointments, problems with co-workers, etc.). Remember that such discrimination is illegal, and there are rights to protect you.

It’s important to become familiar with your legal rights, in addition to those of your employer. See the Labour Standards website for more information. It’s also advisable to inform yourself of the rules and regulations that apply to your workplace.

An organization striving to ease the return-to-work process!

At the Quebec Breast Cancer Foundation, we are proud to facilitate the transition involved in resuming work, for people who have recently completed their breast cancer treatments. We do so by assigning specific positions to former breast cancer patients, as part of our return-to-work program. In a caring and considerate environment, the employee is therefore able to make a smooth return to work. Visit the Our Job Opportunities section of our website to stay informed about new opportunities.

Contribute to research

Are you an employer who has had at least one experience with the return-to-work process following breast cancer? Share your experience in a study conducted by Karine Bilodeau, researcher at the Faculty of Nursing of the University of Montreal. Your feedback will remain confidential. For more information, please consult this survey: https://fr.surveymonkey.com/r/QTX7ND2 (French only).

Do not allow yourself to get crushed by the debilitating aspects of breast cancer. When resuming a regular post-treatment work schedule, it’s essential to stop focusing on what isn’t possible. Instead, free your mind of the idea of illness. The human spirit is resilient. Start by believing – anything is possible.– Anonymous Survivor

References:

https://www.cancerandwork.ca/survivors/returning-to-work-staying-at-work/

https://www.cancer.org.au/content/about_cancer/ebooks/livingwithcancer/cancer_work_and_you_booklet_february_2017.pdf#_ga=1.133562446.1106650830.1478572153

https://www.uhn.ca/PatientsFamilies/Health_Information/Health_Topics/Documents/Prepare_to_Return_to_Work_after_Cancer_Treatment.pdf

https://www.doctissimo.fr/html/dossiers/cancer/articles/15096-retour-travail-apres-cancer.htm (French only)

https://www.roche.fr/fr/patients/info-patients-cancer/vivre-avec-un-cancer/cancer-et-travail/travail-pendant-traitement.html (French only)

https://www.cancer.org.au/content/about_cancer/ebooks/livingwithcancer/cancer_work_and_you_booklet_february_2017.pdf#_ga=1.133562446.1106650830.1478572153