A 2009 study found that cancer reduced the probability of participating in working life by about 30 percent for men and 40 percent for women — and, now, a new study says that, for cancer survivors, going back to work is especially tough.
Researcher Birgit Brusletto studied eight people — four men and four women aged 42 to 59 years — and their return to work after extensive surgery, chemotherapy or radiation. And she found that, while statistics may indicate that the rate of those returning to work after cancer treatment is improving, they may not be able to stay with the job over time. According to Brusletto, cancer survivors who held jobs involving heavier physical labor faced more difficulty in returning to work than others. Women and those with less education, especially, tended to be more disabled after a long sick leave than men.
We reached out to cancer survivors who've returned back to work to share how they've coped, and here is there advice.
1. Surround yourself with supportive coworkers.
"One of the biggest surprises was the support afforded to me when I went back to work — my coworkers missed me, and told me," says Haralee Weintraub. "They expressed their concern in person when I returned, which was odd because during and initially I did not feel the love! I returned at part time and found I really enjoyed not working full time. I had some occasional mishaps with work acquaintances not realizing I was wearing a wig when I was complimented on my new hair style. I just took it in stride rather than getting into it the whys of wearing a wig. I was up front with everyone on my cancer. That worked for my personality. I know of other people who do not want to discuss their health or personal life at work and that is their prerogative."
"I am a pediatric cancer survivor — I was diagnosed with Leukemia at the age of 10 and was pulled from school," says Keane Veran. "By the time I was healthy enough to return, I was in seventh grade. One thing that I found difficult going back to school was the fear of judgment and navigating the new way people would treat me. I still remember how anxious I felt the night before going back to school. What helped me was to accept that I would stand out no matter what. Recognizing this really helped me to embrace my story and write my own. So after becoming a survivor, I started a social enterprise that makes hats healthy enough for a cancer patient and grants wishes for children with cancer."
4. Allow yourself to feel.
6. Find a passion and follow it.
"The thought of returning back to work after my cancer surgery was what kept me focused on healing," says Heather Von St. James, a 12-year mesothelioma survivor. "I loved my job as a salon owner and stylist and adored my clients. My surgeon told me I would be good to go in 12 weeks. Looking back now, I realize how unrealistic that was. I had major surgery to remove my left lung, surrounding tissue, the left half of my diaphragm and the lining of my heart. Going back to work in the salon wasn’t possible after 12 weeks, and it actually wasn’t possible at all. The post-surgery treatments left me debilitated and fatigued, and I had to give up my career because the radiation caused excessive nerve damage to my left hand. I found myself at a crossroads after finishing treatment. I knew my chosen profession was no longer a possibility, so what could I do? A traditional job was not going to be the answer because I didn't have a degree, nor could my body and mind deal with the riggers of retail or a 9-5 job. So I ended up creating my own job. I started blogging and doing patient advocacy. I found myself in a position to start sharing my story with others, speaking at charity events and doing freelance writing.
"I found myself loving this new way of life, and the best thing is I am my own boss. Twelve years later, I still have days when my body says 'enough,' and I simply have to listen and lay low. I push myself pretty hard and try to push through the not-so-good days. Being a patient advocate is mentally and spiritually draining, but knowing that I'm helping people in their greatest time of need because of my experience makes it easier. Although I’m not doing the same job I was pre-cancer, I was able to take what I was given and turn it into something that works for me. My advice is even if the job you had isn't a possibility, find a passion and follow it. It worked for me."
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.