Returning to work after cancer treatment
If you have ever had a prolonged time out of the workplace – to have a baby, to care for someone, for injury or ill health – then you will know that the biggest hurdle to overcome in returning to work is confidence. Mine left me in spades and the thought of returning to work felt totally overwhelming. I know others wouldn’t have thought this about me – after all I had been one of the most confident and chatty team members. Now just walking up the steps to the building reception (as my pass had been disabled) made me feel sick.
In returning, I was part of the work I loved doing once again. And the pieces of work which I had been doing at home gave me a platform to contribute quickly. But what I found was that my brain wasn’t switching on to the pace it had before. I thought of myself as being ‘on the pitch’ but not really playing. And so my humour took over, providing a mask for my insecurity. It took time but this grew again, notching up after every time I lost myself in a conversation or delivered something.
The other, more challenging aspect in returning was that I realised that my life had now changed – substantially and irrevocably. I felt and looked different. I wore a wig and then ditched it for an extremely short hairstyle, I had no eyebrows or eye lashes, I had put on weight with my medication and I had lymphodema in my arm which plagued me at times. My perspective had changed and I found myself with little patience for negativity and moaning and often I would snap and feel really bad about it later. And mainly I just felt different. Different in that my life was now at the mercy of the medications and treatments which I needed to work to keep my high-risk cancer from returning. Different in the reality of living from check up to check up and scan to scan, where the lead up of anxiety started from weeks out. And different in that I found it hard to feel light hearted any more. Talking at Maggie’s on a regular basis helped me to speak some of this out loud, in a place where people understood and where I didn’t feel ‘different’.
But work was also good for me. It distracted in the down times and was motivating and exciting in the good times. And I soon found my rhythm again. Some days would go by when I didn’t think about cancer at all, just about the work I was doing. It took time, and the understanding of my colleagues.
And what I learned about how to support colleagues at this stage, includes:
- That short visits into the workplace, to come in for a coffee or to join a team meeting, really help. Physically and emotionally your colleague has gone through a lot so this is about building energy and stamina back up, as well as confidence. It really isn’t easy to come back after any trauma.
- The little things matter – making sure their pass works on the first day back, for example, and nominating someone on the day they return to meet them at the door and walk back in with them. I lay awake for hours thinking about how I would be able to walk back in along a floor of colleagues looking and feeling as differently as I did. But my closest colleague met me and chatted all the way in, and before I knew it I was at my work area, people said hello and then it was done. And that favourite scone again appeared as a ‘welcome back’.
- Remembering that your colleague didn’t choose to take time off is key – in actual fact they would have done anything to make sure life had continued as normal. So, on their return, make sure that temporary job cover means just that. I returned to work to have to shape out parts of my job again which felt upsetting.
- Know that cancer doesn’t stop there. I found trying to re-establish myself at work and make up for ‘lost’ time, as well as trying to be a great mum, juggle medical appointments and look after myself felt totally overwhelming. Some coaching helped me realise that I was just one person and what my priorities really were.