Decisions about work and cancer: pause for thought

By Barbara Wilson, Working with cancer

Returning to work after cancer wasn’t something I gave a great deal of time or thought to during my treatment for breast cancer in 2005. When I was first diagnosed, I kept telling myself and others that I’d be back at work if not in five days, then in just a few weeks. I rang my boss several times saying “I’m sure I’ll be back in the next week or two.”.

However, as my treatment plan changed and became more complicated after chemotherapy was advised, I realised that going back into the office might have to wait a bit. But I was always going to return, no matter what. It was just a matter of waiting a few more months. After all I had worked all my life and as far as I was concerned it was my life – there was simply no alternative. Interestingly, my colleagues thought otherwise and looked somewhat confused and almost put out that I was really coming back; after all, as one colleague happily told me, they had managed perfectly well without me and surely I wanted to spend more time with my family now, doing the many things I still wanted to do before… (awkward pause)? Except that I didn’t actually want any of that.

But my experience is not necessarily typical. For many people returning to work after a cancer diagnosis is something they dread because they hate their work or their boss or their work colleagues or all three. Or it’s just too demanding with hours of work or travel or other pressures that they can no longer endure.

It is also the case that most if not all of us find the experience of cancer life changing and, because of that, want to change our lives before it’s too late. We may well have used the time of active treatment to examine what our priorities are and realise that friends and family have been neglected or that our work is just boring. We might want more balance in our lives and/or need to find something that will give our lives more meaning.

So, we are often confronted by a disconcerting mixture of emotional and practical considerations often made worse by the trauma of cancer treatment and the impact of medication, and in the meantime our families and friends advising us to move on and just put it all behind us. Let’s ring the bell in the chemo ward and forget it ever happened!

So, what to do?

One really critical point for anyone going through the ‘what to do about my work’ dilemma:  never resign! It may just be that you can’t face the rigours of full-time work but remember that under the Equality Act 2010 you are entitled to a gradual, phased return over many months so this should allow you to gradually ease yourself back in.

But if you really can’t stand your job, rather than chuck it in and rush into the next thing, it’s really important – if you can afford it – to step back and take stock. One of the coaching tools we use is to get our coachees to complete a Life Map which asks them to consider their lives in the round and what they would want to have achieved or happened over the next three years. It’s an important if difficult exercise, and admittedly not everyone wants to go there, but it does give you a sense of direction and helps you better understand your priorities.

You may want to share all or part of your Life Map with family and close friends. They may be quite surprised and probably relieved that you are moving forward.

And when you return to work, assuming that’s what you do, a lot is likely to have changed, both within your team and work environment, as well as your priorities. For many of us just getting confident in our old role is enough but others will start to think about future roles and what is right for them. Some may want to ease down and work fewer hours, others will want to pursue their career as if nothing had changed, and some may look elsewhere for fulfilment: voluntary work, self-employment, just something else other than ‘same old, same old’.

All of this is very normal after the trauma of cancer – just give yourself time to think things through and consider the outcomes. And, if you have concerns that as a result of your cancer your employer may be holding back from giving you additional responsibilities that they think would put increased pressure and stress on you, or if you are starting to think about changes to your role or have concerns about your future career direction, it is really important that you discuss these with you manager or HR or take advice from an organisation like WWC.

What it’s also important to remember is that most of us, including those with secondary and metastatic cancer are very employable. You can find satisfying and rewarding work with or after cancer, and in many cases, if that’s what you want, enjoy a brand-new career.

Barbara Wilson

Founder & Director

Working With Cancer

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