Returning to Work After Cancer

If a patient you have been ministering to is re-entering the workforce after a cancer diagnosis, you should know that s/he isn’t alone. More than three million cancer survivors in the United States today are under age 65, and in the prime of their working years.


However, going from cancer patient to employee, while becoming more common, can be a difficult transition. This is true whether the patient is returning to work full-time, part-time or starting a new job altogether.


The Benefits of Returning to Work

Returning to work can be both scary and exciting. Some cancer survivors look forward to work as a return to “normal” life and a major milestone in their recovery. Others view work as a financial necessity, and something they would give up if they could. It may help to know that aside from the monetary advantages, there are other benefits of re-entering the workforce.


Returning to work after a cancer diagnosis can:

  • Bring structure to a daily routine
  • Help the patient feel more productive
  • Provide a sense of purpose
  • Boost self-esteem
  • Help the patient feel connected
  • Promote independence
  • Distract the patient from worrying about his/her health

 Making a Smooth Re-entry Into Work

As the person re-enters the workforce, s/he may worry about perception by co-workers and how he/she will cope with cancer-related side effects on the job. The cancer patient/survivor may also require certain accommodations from his/her employer and be unsure about how to broach the subject. It’s normal to have mixed feelings and concerns about returning to work. However, there are ways to move forward and ease the transition.


If the patient wants to find a new job after cancer, here are some suggestions you can make:

  • Think about what to tell future employers about the illness. Tailor your resume to highlight skills and experience. If cancer treatment caused a gap in employment greater than a year, create a skills-based rather than a chronological-based resume. If listing dates, list years only. Remember, you can be truthful and discrete at the same time.
  • Rehearse how to respond to interview questions ahead of time. If the interviewer asks about gaps in employment, you don’t have to go into detail. For example, you can say you were dealing with some health issues which are now resolved. Emphasize a readiness and eagerness to return to work.
  • During the interview, stay focused on skills as a job applicant. Although you must answer honestly about any condition which may affect your ability to do the job, you should focus on strengths. Try not to volunteer a cancer history.
  • Be truthful about your medical history on insurance forms. Hiding a pre-existing condition may make you ineligible for health benefits.

 Tips for Returning to Work After Cancer

You may want to share these tips with a cancer patient you’re working with if s/he is returning to work after cancer:

  • Evaluate your goals. Your experience with cancer may have changed your career goals, making you re-evaluate what you really want to achieve in life. Based on these feelings, you may want to take a few months off or go part-time, if possible. On the other hand, you may view work as a welcome distraction from cancer and look forward to a full-time commitment.
  • Plan your return. Talk with your doctor about whether you’re ready to return to work and in what capacity. Ask your doctor how your diagnosis, medications or treatments could affect your job. Ask how you can manage potential side effects and if your treatment schedule can be modified to fit your work schedule (e.g., if you can schedule treatments late in the day or before the weekend to give yourself time to recover).
  • Know your rights. Some people with cancer face challenges related to workplace discrimination issues. There are federal and state laws in place to protect the employment rights of cancer survivors, such as the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). You may also be eligible for time off through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Work with your organization’s human resources department to learn about your rights and determine if there are return-to-work programs in place.
  • Anticipate reactions from co-workers. You may experience a range of reactions from co-workers, particularly if your physical appearance has changed. Some may openly ask you questions, so it helps to think about how you will respond ahead of time. Others may avoid talking to you or react awkwardly around you at first. Try to remember these reactions have more to do with their own uneasiness or fear about cancer than a lack of interest in you.
  • Decide what you want to tell others and how. It’s up to you how much you decide to tell co-workers about your cancer experience. You may decide to confide in only a few close colleagues. You may also find it easier to tell everyone at the same time, or have someone speak on your behalf. How open you are with the details can also depend on your work environment. For example, if you’re self-employed, you should think carefully about how much, if anything, you want to divulge.
  • Make modifications to your job if necessary. You may be dealing with difficult disease- and treatment-related side effects. If you’re self-employed, you have more control over your working hours and environment. If you work for a company, ask your supervisor about making temporary adjustments if needed, such as a flexible work schedule, reduced hours, working from home, a redesigned workstation, or modifications to your job responsibilities.
  • Check in with your supervisor regularly. Try to schedule regular meetings with your supervisor to review expectations. Discuss your treatment schedule and follow-up medical appointments, and how you plan to work around them. If you know you will be less productive for a time, communicate how you will make it up and when you expect to be better. Some employers may ease up on your job duties because they think it is what you want, so let them know if this isn’t the case.
  • Be realistic about your workload. Get input from your supervisor about which projects, meetings and other obligations are of highest priority. Organize your workload and shift your duties around to account for times when you’ll be out of the office. Be realistic about what you can and can't handle. When possible, delegate tasks to a co-worker or associate. You may also want to choose a point person to handle requests when you are out of the office.
  • Project a sense of competence. It's important to reassure your supervisor and colleagues that things are under control and you intend to be as productive as possible. Emphasize your current health and abilities, and avoid discussing the unknown parts of your treatment. Clear and constant communication will reassure everyone that you are still a productive member of the team. If you are self-employed, keep interactions with clients as business-oriented as possible.
  • Manage side effects. Cancer and its treatment can cause side effects, such as fatigue, nausea, difficulty concentrating, pain, anxiety, depression, neuropathy, etc. These side effects can reduce your ability to perform specific duties at work. Talk with your doctor about what you can do to manage these side effects. He/she may be able to adjust your treatment schedule, prescribe certain medications, or recommend other techniques to improve your comfort and quality of life.
  • Conserve your energy. Cancer-related side effects, like fatigue, can make work more exhausting than before. It helps to track your energy levels in a journal, and then schedule important meetings or tasks during your peak performance hours. To conserve your energy at home, you may decide to pay your bills and shop online, buy easy-to-prepare meals, and delegate household chores and tasks, such as laundry and cleaning.
  • Try complementary therapies to reduce stress. Stress can impair your job performance and cognitive skills. When you feel overwhelmed, write down a list of your priorities and focus on the most important task first. Try different techniques, such as deep breathing, to combat stress during your work day. You can also reorganize your work environment by cleaning up clutter and other distractions. As always, make sure you get plenty of sleep, maintain a healthy diet, and get regular exercise.
  • Seek support. It's common, and often helpful, for cancer survivors who re-enter the workforce to seek counseling or join a support group. You may also want to attend workshops about returning to work, or take classes to refresh your skills. In addition, some companies also offer occupational health services, including vocational counseling, to their employees.

 Note: This information isn’t intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always advise a cancer patient you work with to seek the advice of a physician or other qualified healthcare provider regarding returning to work during/after cancer treatment.

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