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What You Should Know About Returning To Work After Cancer Treatment

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Written by Alexis Dobranowski, a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

Planning for a return to work after time away for cancer treatment can be a daunting and stressful task.

Occupational therapist Leslie Gibson says patients often come to her with concerns about the transition - from worries about fatigue to forgetfulness and concentration to anxiety about how colleagues will act around them once they return.

"There's anxiety about how to handle responsibilities of the workplace, as well as how to respond to the questions coworkers might ask," Leslie said. Whether you've disclosed your cancer diagnosis to colleagues or not, there are some tips Leslie has to help smooth the return to work following cancer-related absence.

Pretend first.

Once you are feeling well enough to plan to return to work, start by practicing.

"Go through a typical work day," Leslie said. "Wake up at your work wake-up time. Do you commute? Get into your car and do that commute. Spend the day doing activities that you might do at work -- do something on your computer if you have a desk job, or do housework, take a walk or exercise if you have a more physical job."

Remember too, Leslie said, it's not just about the 9 to 5. "You have to have the stamina to get through the day, but also travel to work, complete your tasks and interact with others, and travel home."

Talk about it - to your employer, job counsellor or case manager.
If you've been on short-term disability, you may be assigned a case manager to help facilitate your return to work. Talk with your case manager or employer about possible changes or accommodations that can be made to your job or schedule.

"You may be able to return to work gradually, starting with a few days per week," Leslie said. "Can you work from home some days? Could you modify your physical job into something less physically demanding? Can you plan for a few extra rest breaks in the day?" Also, you will likely need time off for follow-up appointments. How will you deal with that need for time off? Speaking with your employer in advance can help set you up for success.

Expect to be tired...

Getting back to your work routine will be tiring, Leslie said. Is there anything you can do to help prepare yourself? Make and freeze some meals so that you don't have to worry about dinner when you get home.

...So limit non-work demands.

During the first month of your return to work, try to reduce other demands on your time. Can someone else pick your children up from daycare? Do you have a family member or friend who could help with other household chores and meal prep? Try not to take on too much so you can allow yourself time to rest in the evenings.

Rehearse what you will say to coworkers or appoint a spokesperson

Sometimes it can be hard to deal with questions from well-meaning coworkers. Maybe you haven't told your colleagues about your cancer journey. Or maybe you are tired of talking about it and just want to return to normal life. If you haven't disclosed your illness, weigh the pros and cons of doing so. If you have a trusted manager or colleague, consider telling them what's been going on, and allow them to share certain information with others to filter the well-wishes and questions. "This depends on your individual situation and your own journey," Leslie said. "Determine how much you want to share and with whom."

Tap into resources.

Explore your employer's Employee Assistance Program if you have one. Check out online resources like the American Cancer Society, Rethink Breast Cancer and BC Cancer Society.

Check in with yourself

Monitor how you are doing after a day, a week and a month. What is going well? What isn't? Do you have to make any changes?

"If you are having a difficult time, speak with your employer, case manager or health-care team," Leslie said.

Read more about living with cancer from Sunnybrook experts at

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