Back to the daily grind… and some kind of normal.
Going back to work after finishing treatment was a big deal for me. My sick note ran out exactly 6 weeks after treatment had finished and my plan was always to head back into the world of employment at that point, regardless of whether other people thought I was ready or not.
That being said, on the run up to my return I felt increasingly anxious that I wasn’t going to be able to cope. I’d been off work for 10 months, and during that time, cancer treatment had basically been my full time job. Being at the hospital every week became my routine… treatment became my life. And on the days I didn’t have treatment, I spent my time resting, trying to rebuild my strength and get through to the next appointment, get over the next hurdle.
Driving home after my last radiotherapy session, the end of my active treatment, I was elated but also completely lost. After 10 months, I had finally crossed the finish line, my body still had plenty of recovering to do, but I was no longer “really sick” and, desperately hoping for some normality back in my life, I wanted to transition into a new routine that resembled something like my life pre cancer. I couldn’t get my head around… “what am I going to do with myself now?” I have gone from cancer patient to cancer survivor, and I was keen to move on as soon as I could.
My work have been incredible since my diagnosis. I am really lucky that I work for a fantastic company who place a lot of focus on employee health and welfare, and my amazing team have been there throughout treatment offering me support. My diagnosis came completely out of the blue for all of us, I hadn’t told anyone I had been referred to the breast clinic (not even my mum!) so when I called my manager to tell him my news, it’s safe to say he was rather shocked. I told him pretty much straight away, my career has always been super important to me and I wanted to make sure I did everything right so I had one to come back to! He was amazing, as were the wider team, even the senior leadership team in the UK were reaching out with messages of support and understanding. I was told to forget about work, focus on my treatment and getting better, everything else could wait. What a relief.
I was very naive early on in my diagnosis, thinking that as soon as I had finished chemo, I might be able to start back at work almost straight away, after all some people carry on working through some forms of chemotherapy treatment, so why wouldn’t I be able to work through radiotherapy? Work told me to forget about it, and they were right! Turns out chemo pretty much floored me, and just as I was trying to put the pieces of myself back together, radiotherapy came along and unpicked them all over again.
I didn’t realised how tough some of the longer term side effects were going to be, the fatigue from treatment but also the menopausal symptoms from the ongoing medication, but luckily my HR team and occupational health have been very involved in my sick leave and also with the plan for me to return to work, meaning they were very keen to ensure I wasn’t returning too soon (they wanted to to wait a little bit longer), and that I took a phased approach as I rebuilt my strength so it was sustainable and I wasn’t going to end up overdoing it and needing more time off.
If you aren’t as fortunate as me, and don’t work for such a brilliant company, it is worth noting a couple of things. Everyone’s experience with cancer treatment is different, some can carry on almost as normal and others it just won’t be possible. In a survey done in 2019, it was found that 40% of people that had been through some form of cancer treatment felt they were unable to work after their treatment finished in the same way as they did before their diagnosis.
Sharing your situation with your manager/ HR etc is a good idea so they can help provide help through your treatment and then your return to work. They should make every effort to support you, and they must not treat you any less favourably than your colleagues based on your cancer. Legally they have a duty of care to ensure reasonable adjustments are made to support a return to work (shorter hours, time off for appointments etc). If you find any sort of barrier, or feel discriminated in any way, you should know that a cancer diagnosis is covered under the 2010 equality act which essentially means that anyone diagnosed with cancer is classified as “disabled” for life and consequently protected from discrimination on the basis of your diagnosis.
My life changed completely during treatment, as did I as a person, so I was really worried about going back to work and whether I was going to be “up to it” anymore. Was I going to be able to find the energy to do myself justice at work? Was I going to be able to clear the chemo fog and be able to concentrate for long periods of time, multi task, remember things and string sentences together properly.
Most of the people I work with know exactly why I’ve been off, but did my customers? I have a new set of accounts, what had they been told, and if the answer is nothing, how much do I tell them now? Do they need to know the details, or do I keep it to myself? How much information is too much information? I didn’t want people to just look at me as the girl who’d had cancer, I wanted them to still be able to see me as a person, and I felt super self conscious about it.
It’s still a massive learning curve. I’ve only been back a couple of weeks… I'm still getting used to being kind and pacing myself, being sensible, and not pushing too hard. Trying to set realistic goals and expectations of just what I can do and how well I can do it (doesn’t stop me getting frustrated with myself still though!) My energy is still quite low and I’ve had to have a few nana naps in the afternoons once I’ve finished my working day. I find I take life at a slower pace now, I feel more fragile than I did before and no where near as strong, but I will be, and I’m getting there.
It feels great to be able to remind myself of my old life, what it was like before the big C. Waking up in the morning and having something other to look forward to that hospital appointments, doctors, scans etc. Having conversations that don’t solely revolve around “cancer chat”. Feeling useful again, settling back into a routine, even setting an alarm for the morning! All things I took for granted before.
Some people said it was too soon to return to work, after only finishing treatment six weeks previously, but I felt like the longer I had off, the more difficult it was going to become to get back into it. I love my job, I always have, and getting back to doing something you enjoy helps forget about being sick for a little while, and the sense of normality feels absolutely incredible. It’s definitely worth a few afternoon naps to feel just a little bit like the “old me” again.
Take things slowly and give yourself time. You have been through a lot, you don’t need to rush the last hurdle.
Make sure you’re ready, don’t rush back just because you think you should.
Keep in touch with your boss, it will give them the opportunity to support you through your treatment and will also make you feel less apprehensive about returning, knowing they have been there with you throughout.
Keep in touch with some of your team as well (if you have one!) as it's nice to have a friendly face after being off for so long
Don’t run before you can walk. I wanted to head straight back to full time and after only doing 3 full days over the last 2 weeks so far, I can safely say that would have been a mistake!
If possible, phase back gradually
And if it’s someone you work with returning to work, remember -
We might look ok without actually feeling it. A lot of side effects can’t be seen (hot flushes, fatigue, bone aches etc)
Fatigue is a very real side effect from cancer treatment, and it affects everything from your memory to your ability to remember what was said to you two minutes ago, we might struggle getting back into our normal routine
Be patient with us, chemo brain is real, and we’ve thought of nothing but cancer treatment for the last god knows how long, it will take us time to get back into the swing of things
We might not want to talk about their diagnosis. Leave it to us to share the details as we wish
Try and avoid treating us too differently to how you did before. Sure, being patient and sensitive is one thing, but most of the time, we are looking for a sense of normality. If you used to have banter, carry on with the banter, we will love you for it even more!
Until next time… check your boobs