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Returning to Work After Cancer

To each of us, work has a different meaning. It may provide an identity, self-esteem, financial security, health coverage, and fulfillment. I personally felt each of these as an RN and nursing instructor. The inability to work during chemotherapy and its side effects were a source of anxiety and depression. The ability to return to work gave me a sense of normalcy and control. I credit the support of my colleagues and supervisor in my ability and successful return to work.

Strategies to help with the return to work

The following strategies can assist the cancer patient in his or her return to work. I found these helpful when I returned to my role in nursing.

Talk to your healthcare team

The return to work topic should be discussed with the oncology team. The aim is to identify potential problems concerning returning to work and to plan the interventions that best suit the individual patient. My physician’s concern was my weakened immune system and my potential exposure to infectious diseases. We explored possible actions to take to keep me healthy and safe.

If you plan to return, keep your employer updated

If you feel comfortable doing so, it can be important to keep your colleagues and employer updated about your treatment and plan to return to work. The employer may need to know so that he or she can anticipate your return and provide coverage as needed. I found it helpful to communicate via email to my supervisor. It allowed me to ensure that she was aware of my physical status, plans to return, and tentative schedule.

Contact Human Resources

The patient can contact the Human Resources department to explore legal aspects such as a short or long-term medical leave, the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and any relevant contractual issues that may affect employment.

Consider accomodations that might be needed

Do schedules need to be altered to accommodate fatigue or ongoing treatments? I planned my schedule to allow my monthly Rituxan therapy. While returning to work is an individual decision, patients should be provided the opportunity to consider all options. Depending on the aspects of the job, are there any restrictions? How will the patient manage exposure to infections, episodes of reduced white blood counts, fatigue, and scheduling for chemotherapy or other treatments and physician visits?

From a personal perspective, I was able to return to work after the incapacitating fatigue subsided with the completion of the Bendamustine cycles. My colleagues and supervisor were updated on an ongoing basis and I was provided the much-needed support and care during this most difficult transition. My work provides great satisfaction and allows me to appreciate life. It is my hope that these strategies may be useful for anyone considering a return to work after a cancer experience.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Yolanda Brunson-Sarrabo moderator
    1 year ago

    Thank you Carole, Great article!
    I recall working with many people affected by cancer, and it was clear not working was not an option. It’s unfortunate many companies don’t have empathy on the situation, and if you have a job with good income and benefits, it tends to throw a shadow. In these times for many you are forced to think outside of the box.

  • Carole McCue author
    1 year ago

    Thanks Daniel. Work is a very important part of who we are. There are more options available today to help. An example for teaching may be an “on line” course. This allows one to be at home, leisurely teaching the course when you may have the energy,

  • Daniel Malito moderator
    1 year ago

    @cmccue Great article, Carol. I know many people who are disabled or stuck at home who still want to work. It helps to give purpose, and the money doesn’t hurt either. Many jobs do now offer some work at home, but there are also foundations that can help with home telemarketing work if you decide you cannot return to the office. Keep on keepin’ on, DPM

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