A Five-Step Guide to Returning to Work After Cancer Treatment

Emerging victorious from cancer treatment is a relieving experience. You won and overcame a life-threatening battle, and now you can reclaim your life. Picking up where you left off and reintegrating into the workforce is one inspiring way to regain a sense of direction and meaning. However, before you start taking work calls and checking emails, remember that readjusting to work demands additional preparation to guarantee a manageable and comfortable transition. By taking some time to plan your return, you can slide back into your professional routine with renewed energy and confidence.


What Cancer Survivors Should Know Before Returning to Work

Cancer can take a physical, mental, and emotional toll, which may prevent some survivors from performing in the same capacity they did pre-diagnosis. Despite these challenges, with careful preparation and a willingness to communicate, going back to work is an option for many inspiring survivors.

Before you slip back into your favorite blazer or work jeans, here is a step-by-step guide to reintegrating to work after cancer treatment.


Step 1: Get your doctor’s approval

Recovery is a journey, and you can’t reach your destination overnight. It’s important to prioritize your health – more so than ever to prevent cancer recurrence – before diving back to work. Are you strong enough to make it to and from your office? Are you experiencing mental confusion? Are you always tired? Your physician may ask you these questions and more, as well as perform a series of tests to determine if and when you can return to work.

In addition, your capacity to return to work will depend on the following:

  • Your general disposition (physical, mental, emotional) following treatment
  • How fast your body recovers from any long-term side effects of treatment
  • Your need for follow-up care
  • The nature of your job and whether it’s too physically demanding or stressful


Step 2: Contact your workplace

Contact your human resources department or supervisor to request a meeting, whether over the phone, through a video call, or in person. During your discussion, address the specifics of your return, including when you can start and how your daily work schedule will look.

It’s important to know Your Employment Rights as a Cancer Survivor. According to U.S. federal laws and most state laws, employers are required to accommodate reasonable requests from cancer survivors. To help you reintegrate successfully, discuss any necessary accommodations with your employer, such as working from home when you first return, flexible work hours, job restructuring, or assistive technology.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which ensures up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off for health-related reasons, applies to workplaces throughout the United States, including private establishments with a minimum of 50 employees. You may take your FMLA leave in gradual amounts (hours or a couple of days) for follow-up medical care.


Step 3: Determine how much of your journey to share

After months or a year of absence, your colleagues will likely have questions, and it’s up to you when and how much you want to share. Disclosing your cancer diagnosis and survivorship to colleagues is a personal choice. Some cancer survivors choose to keep this information private, while others may be open to sharing their entire story with a few colleagues.

If you prefer to maintain your privacy, keep your explanations positive and simple whenever a co-worker approaches you with questions. Tell them you’re uncomfortable answering or delving deep into certain questions, which may help create healthy boundaries.

If you decide to share more about your survivorship, it may promote understanding and empathy from your co-workers. Sharing your story may also create a supportive work environment and reduce any anxiety or misconceptions your colleagues may have about cancer.

However, sharing your story can also bring unwanted attention and questions, which may be uncomfortable for some individuals. Some colleagues may even be apprehensive about your return. Consider your comfort level, workplace culture, and the potential impact on your professional relationships before talking about your survivorship with colleagues.

Ultimately, you should do what feels right to you and prioritize your emotional well-being during the reintegration process. Consider talking to a trusted colleague or HR representative for support and guidance on navigating these conversations. Planning out your social interactions beforehand can help ease your transition and help everyone understand the accommodations and support you require to make your return a success.


Step 4: Accept that you may not perform at 100% right away

Part of your journey towards a “normal life” post-treatment is acknowledging the potential health challenges that may arise as a cancer survivor. If you underwent chemotherapy, its side effects might persist for several months or years after treatment. You may experience fatigue, nausea, appetite changes, and cognitive issues, even if your cancer is in remission. During this time, prioritizing self-care, knowing your limitations, and communicating effectively with your supervisors and colleagues will help ensure a smooth transition back to work.

Consider the following tips to help yourself readapt to life at work following cancer treatment:

  • Take frequent breaks to maintain your energy levels throughout the day
  • Create to-do-lists and set alarms to remember important tasks or meetings
  • Talk to your immediate supervisor about any concerns or challenges

Don’t hesitate to speak up about any issues you may face while attempting to reintegrate into work. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) acknowledges and protects all physical and cognitive limitations resulting from cancer treatment. Therefore, employers must make reasonable accommodations that will allow you to perform your job to the best of your current ability, including:

  • Permitting work breaks to take medication or reduce fatigue
  • Assigning you to a position that aligns with your new hours or current abilities


Step 5: Take Your Time

Returning to work after undergoing cancer treatment can be a monumental step in your recovery journey. While it’s crucial to prioritize your recovery and take all the time you need, some individuals may feel ready sooner than others. It’s essential to recognize that everyone’s experience is unique, and there is no “right” way or “perfect” time to approach returning to work. You may feel uncertain, excited, or a combination of different emotions, which are all valid. Remember to take care of yourself and listen to your body as you navigate this transition.

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