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Returning to Work when You have Cancer

separator Since there’s no cookie-cutter response to having cancer and being treated for it, there is no set way to approach returning to work when you’ve had a cancer diagnosis. But a couple of things seem to be true for a lot of people: going to work is a great way to take your focus off your health, and it’s a good way to maintain your connection with other people.

There are also a lot of difficult things. Chemotherapy and radiation can leave you feeling exhausted, so there may be days when you simply don’t think you can go to work or when you don’t think you can put in a whole day. You may also feel sick sometimes, so you’ll need to take days off until you feel better.

A lot depends on your work environment. Some organizations are very willing to work with you when you’ve used up your personal and sick leave and you still need more time off. Others are less willing to negotiate, and it’s best to find out early what you’re going to have to deal with.

Some general guidelines

Tell your supervisor as much as you can about how you’ll be feeling and how often you’ll need to visit doctors for treatments. Some people may think that once you’ve had an operation for cancer, you’re home free. They’ll need to know how much time you’ll need off after you get back to work if you’re going to be having chemotherapy and/or radiation.

For most people, it works best to tell co-workers exactly what’s going on. They can be a great source of support and encouragement when you’re feeling overwhelmed by fatigue or nausea. And if they work closely with you on projects, it’s also helpful to let them know when you’re likely to be feeling less well and less able to work as hard as you’d like. Telling people about your cancer can be difficult at first, but chances are you’ll find that they want to be there for you, and that’s what you need.

Take rest breaks, if you can. If exhaustion overwhelms you, see if you can set aside a quiet place to get away and rest. This may be easier said than done, but if it’s possible, you should try it. A short rest can help you gather your strength and may be enough to keep you from needing to go back home before you want to.

Having cancer can be overwhelming, and it may be tempting to stay in bed and avoid the work world as long as you can. But it can be therapeutic to get out there and see your coworkers and feel productive again. It’s helpful to think about things besides your cancer.

American Cancer Society; National Cancer Institute.
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