5 Tips For Returning To Work After Treatment

Going back to work after treatment is a big deal, well it was for me anyway.
I had so many questions running through my mind and scenarios which constantly kept triggering my anxiety but the main question that was at the forefront of my mind was ...would I be able to cope?

I was diagnosed with Grade 3 Stage 2 HER2 Positive Breast Cancer in May 2017 at the ripe old age of 31 and after completing fertility treatment to preserve embryos, shortly after diagnosis, my brutal cancer treatment begun.
5 months of chemotherapy, a lumpectomy, full auxiliary node clearance, 20 rounds of radiotherapy and 18 rounds of Herceptin. It was a busy 15 months that's for sure.

When I was undergoing treatment, being at the hospital week in week out became routine, a bit like a really crappy job. I knew what I had to do, knew what could go wrong,  prayed that it didn't , had my lunch on my chemo chair, chatted with other patients like I was in a weird board meeting, but didn't have the nice pay packet at the end of the month.

Appointment times filled my iPhones calendar and any day that didn't involve treatment I was at home resting watching Netflix, Harry Potter, blogging or working on my charity from my bed.

It became my life. I became some what institutionalised and started to feel like the hospital was my safe place where they were keeping me alive but it was also a place that I absolutely despised at the same time.

So the moment eventually came when it all ended and I only had the Herceptin left to complete.
Although my body was still recovering from chemo and radiotherapy, I felt a little lost. I felt like I had come to the end of my fixed term contract without having an exit interview for the closure I so desperately thought I needed.

Despite having to continue my visits to the chemo unit every 3 weeks for Herceptin over the course of the next few months, I kept wondering what I was going to do with myself now? I had to go back to work. Not only for my ever drying pockets not only for my mental health but for a new routine that I was desperately hoping to have.

I needed to get out of the 'I'm a very sick person' mode and transition to the 'I'm now cancer free and I must move on with my life' mode. The easiest way was to grab onto my new routine....and fast.

So I decided to go back.
Scared, anxious and probably a little too soon according to most but I made the choice to phase myself back into my old job. The job in which I was signed off sick from for well over a year and the workplace where 500 people who I worked with, who knew about my diagnosis, would naturally want to know and ask how I'm feeling. If treatment was over. Had the cancer gone!

I have been back at work a few hours a week for about 9 or so weeks now and although I've had some ups and downs in such a short space of time, it has now become a routine that I have started to settle into again.

Most will know that my life changed through treatment and I found a passion for other things, other things and creative roads which I thought I'd get into career wise, but I wasn't going to just jump in and figure it out, I want to test the waters or remind myself of the taste of my old life, the old life which I thought I'd never go back to but here I am. Relearning what work was like. What a tiring day in the office was like. What contact with healthy people was like. What being on someone else's clock was like and what being a working independent woman was like. And what conversations that didn't involve 'cancer chat' was like.

I like waking up to something other than a hospital appointment and I like feeling useful again. Useful in something that I was actually good at.
So far, its not all bad. Tiring yes. Extra coffee making trips to keep my brain active yes.

Below are 5 tips on returning back to work that helped me out.
I hope anyone reading will find it helpful too and I know lots will relate.

1. First things first. Are you ready?

The truth is I don't think we'll ever be 100% sure about that. There may be a moment that comes along when you know for certain but for some people it can take longer . There is no right or wrong in deciding when the time is right but the truth is the longer you leave it the harder it will be and when its hard, its hard.

You don't want to keep yourself in the same routine if you don't have to and if you are ready to recover, considering taking on things that will get you a little more tired or challenge you isn't all bad.
Your body can take up to 2 years to recover from fatigue which is one of the biggest hurdles when in recovery, but my oncologist even said, powering through when you are tired won't hurt. In fact it may help the body in combating fatigue and can aid your moving forward from the mental trauma of the time in treatment.

2. Talk to your employer to come up with a realistic plan

So now that you've made the decision to work or you may be still thinking about it, speaking to your manager or employer about a realistic plan should absolutely be the next step. If you are applying for a new job really think about hours and flexibility.
If you a planning on a return to an existing job, a phased return - from a HR perspective - is the absolute best way to ease yourself back in.

Discuss start times, extra breaks, having equipment closer to you, time off for hospital appointments, and what you can do if you are almost falling asleep because of fatigue.

Ive been really lucky with my employers, they have been super flexible and even though I've only been back a short time, Ive already changed my work pattern 3 times!
I'm only doing 12 hours a week but even that is tiring for me.
I take extra tea making trips to the staff canteen a lot of the time just to get up off my chair and reboot my brain.
Chemo Brain is by far the most annoying part about being back. I'm super forgetful so we've agreed that any duties more mentally challenging can be introduced slowly.

If you are applying for a new job ask about all these things, flexibility is key as we never know what we will feel like on a day to day basis.

3. Pace yourself...its not a race

Depending on your job, you may be really tempted to jump in the deep end and do everything you used to do before. Some sadly don't have a choice :(

Doing too much is not advisable at the best of times let alone doing too much after cancer treatment.
Pace yourself, get a notepad and make a little to do list. A to do list that you don't keep adding to missy! And when you start crossing things off, as small as it may be, the sense of achievement feel great!

When I first got back to the HR office I work in, I literally spent my first week walking around catching up with people. That was my task.
We have hundreds of employees where I work and as a member of HR its not only my job to be personable and social but its in my nature anyway.

Taking is tiring work , sounds funny but on my first week back I was going home exhauuuusted.
I eventually learnt to keep the conversations short and sweet and started focusing on office tasks.
It is totally up to you how much you want people to know so saying 'Can we talk about this another time' is not frowned upon, in fact people are really understanding so don't be afraid to stop the conversation if it gets too much. Pace pace pace, even conversations.

Another thing to bare in mind is if you work with people, is the dynamics of a team. I was super anxious and down in my first few weeks, I don't know what it was exactly but I wasn't comfortable with this feeling at all and I considered walking away a few times, but I'm glad I stuck it out.

When you're in treatment you are constantly either in hospital talking to other patients or doctors about cancer and when you are at home with family and friends, the topic of health is first up too, so when you go back to work and suddenly realise you are in a room filled with 'healthy people' who have no clue about what you've been through its hard. Some of them don't know how to even get through a conversation about chemo and others just freeze and don't say anything.
I think that's one thing I noticed....I was talking about cancer less and less and it was OK...it actually was nice.
It began to feel 'normal' again but on some days when I got tired and nobody asked if I was OK I got down about it! Don't ask me why but I just kept repeating the words 'do they not understand what I've been through ' in my head but of course they don't. Try not to take it personally .

4. Plan Lunch Dates

This may seem like a funny tip but its really not.
Planning lunch dates with your colleagues will help rebuild a working relationship and also help them understand the support you may need from that individual.  Everyone has a different personality so a one to one lunch may work brilliantly with one colleague but may not with another.

Your colleagues may or may not have an understanding of what you went through in the last few months and they may have questions they wish to ask to get a deeper understanding to be able to support you because that's what we need most when coming back to work. Support and understanding.
I remember taking one of my colleagues out for lunch and it was lovely. I told her all about chemo brain and apologised in advance if anything went wrong.... but the conversation was great and my anxiety started to settle.
Its always difficult to try and prove to people your capability after cancer because they just assume your going to be slow and forgetful which may be the case for a while, but again, don't be disheartened if you are initially. Your team will understand.

5. Finally, enjoy it and don't forget to Breath

You've decided or are deciding to go back to work for a reason, mainly because you love the independence it gives you. Earning money again, waking up to have something to do even if it is for a few hours.
It may take a few weeks but you will enjoy it again and if you don't, there is always the career change you thought about for years. Anything is possible.


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