October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual campaign to increase awareness of the disease. 

Whether you’ve just been diagnosed, are in the midst of treatment or have recently completed treatment, returning to work can be a daunting experience. As you gear up for work, you might feel like there’s no roadmap to navigate some of your challenges and concerns. Everyday Cancer and Careers, the only national non-profit with a mission to educate and empower people with cancer to thrive in the workplace, supports people as they figure out how to balance work and health demands. While there are many considerations as you think about returning to work, a few key things can make the experience more manageable:

Think about your privacy preferences

Deciding whether to tell your employer and/or co-workers is an intensely personal decision and requires weighing several factors. You have a clear sense of your workplace’s culture and who your allies are, so trust your instincts. Generally, you are not obligated to disclose any information about your health (though there are some exceptions). If you do decide to tell, talk to those you’re most comfortable with or who will be most useful in creating a workable solution for you (possibly your supervisor and/or HR). If you think you may need to request a reasonable accommodation (more on that below), you might have to disclose a medical condition although not necessarily an exact diagnosis. Already shared the news with a select few at work? Make sure to reiterate how private or public you want to be about your diagnosis so they can respect your wishes around disclosure. If you need help figuring out how to reset the view your colleagues have of you, see tips below.

Understand your side effects, and how they might impact your job

Cancer treatment and recovery affects everyone differently. There are many possible side effects from treatment, both visible (hair loss, weight changes, surgery scars, etc.) and “hidden” (fatigue, pain, mental health, etc.). It’s important to figure out how those will impact you at work and determine a course of action. This involves an ongoing conversation with your healthcare team about the specifics of your treatment and how it might affect you at work, including details about the mental and physical demands of your role. Once you have a better idea about potential short and long-term side effects and how to manage them, that can help you make informed decisions about work modifications you may need (such as adjustments to your work schedule, making changes to your physical workspace, etc.). All of that is to make returning to work more comfortable and feasible. 

Get informed about legal protections in the workplace

The law is one of the many tools you can use as you figure out how to best balance work after a cancer diagnosis. If you need to ask for a job modification, look into both federal and state fair employment laws. One way you may be able to access job modifications is through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which is a federal law that requires private employers with 15 or more employees or state or local governments to make “reasonable accommodations” to allow eligible employees to continue doing their job.  Also review your state’s fair employment law, as these may provide even more protections than the ADA. Keep in mind that even if your employer doesn’t have to provide you with an accommodation, it doesn’t mean they won’t. Typically, companies want to retain their good employees, so it never hurts to ask for what you need to keep working. Before approaching your employer, consult with a legal service organization to understand your options, so you can make an informed request. It’s also important to learn more about health insurance laws and job-protected leave laws (FMLA, state laws), in addition to your company’s policies on disabilities, flex time, telecommuting, etc. 

Control the conversation at work 

One concern may be the fear that, if you disclosed, when you go back to work, you will always be seen as the “cancer person” in the office and that coworkers will assume you can’t do your job in the same capacity as you could prior to your diagnosis. This may come out via well-meaning but not helpful comments. It might take time to recast yourself in the eyes of your workplace but try not to get too frustrated or take it personally if a co-worker or manager makes an awkward or insensitive comment. If you find that your co-workers are dwelling on your diagnosis instead of work-related topics, try a technique we refer to as “the swivel.” For example, you can take a question like “How are you feeling today?” and swivel away from the cancer topic and back to work. For instance, “I’m good, thanks. While I have you, do you have time this week to go over the new expense reports?”  The key is to acknowledge your colleague’s comment and then swivel the conversation to a place where you feel comfortable and empowered. By focusing on work, you will help your co-workers see you how you want to be seen.   

Create an Action Plan 

Having a plan can help restore your sense of control but keep it flexible because things may change over time. Start by making a list of everything you need to do – breaking it up into small parts can make things less stressful – and then prioritize. Always carry one notebook with you that contains important notes, lists and priorities for work and home so you never find yourself with the wrong pad at the wrong time (a key strategy if you’re experiencing chemo-brain). It’s also important to learn to delegate effectively. Review your workload, determine what requires your personal attention and what can be distributed to others so that you don’t get overwhelmed. 

Returning to work after a cancer diagnosis can be an important milestone in your journey as a cancer patient or survivor. Remember that while you try to gain some normalcy after a cancer diagnosis, you may find getting back to normal requires additional effort or that your needs may change as your treatment continues or concludes, so it essential to be patient with yourself (and the process) as you get back to work.

Rebecca V. Nellis is the Executive Director of Cancer and Careers. Since 2004 she has helped evolve the organization from early concept to national prominence. Rebecca oversees CAC’s programming and fundraising strategies to ensure long-term growth and sustainability. Under her leadership, the organization’s services transform the everyday lives of survivors, while promoting lasting, systemic change for tomorrow’s workplace. Featured in The Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Women’s Health and on the TODAY show, Rebecca Nellis is a subject matter expert on cancer-workplace issues. She travels the country presenting at national conferences, leading hospitals and community events about the intersection of life, work and cancer. Rebecca holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from New York University and a Master of Public Policy degree from Georgetown University. 

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