6 Cancer Survivors Share Their Advice for Returning to Work

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Woman Working on Computer

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AnnaMarie Houlis
AnnaMarie Houlis
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."
2. Find your new normal.
"I was diagnosed with breast cancer in November of 2015," says Bisa Myles. "With the approval of my oncologist, I worked through treatment as an accountant. The only days I took off while receiving chemotherapy was the day of treatment and a couple of days after. This routine lasted for three months. Then I had surgery and took off a week. After that, I had seven weeks of radiation and I worked the entire time. When that was completed, I took off another week. During this time I did struggle with staying focused and suffered from physical fatigue. I was also very emotional and started seeing a therapist. My manager was able to give me a lighter workload. I still felt I needed more time off so, I requested an unpaid leave of absence for one month and traveled and stayed with friends in Australia. Although the trip was rejuvenating, I still suffered from fatigue and neuropathy a year after treatment ended that made working full time difficult. Then I decided to work a part-time schedule. After three months I realized I couldn't afford to stay on that schedule, so my employer allows me to work a compressed work schedule and I have every other Monday off. It took me two years to find my 'new normal' at work. I am lucky to work for an organization that could accommodate me as I figured out what worked best for me.
"During that time I realized I wanted to pursue other interests. I was not able to quit, but I started to make more time to do the things I couldn't do before such as writing and photography. In November in 2017, I went back to school to get a Master's . in English and Creative Writing after being out of college for 20 years. Changing my work schedule and finding things I am passionate about outside of work were the keys to helping me to adjust to life after cancer."
3. Practice acceptance.

"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.

"I have had to start work twice after battles with cancer — each time came with its challenges and considerations," says Sonya T. Cruel. "The first time I experienced feelings of surprise, fear, unbelief and support. The second time the course of treatment was more invasive and had a signcant impact on my appeareance. Working in the healthcare setting I thought I would have been more prepared but I still experienced fear, confusion, doubt and uncertainty. As an oncology social worker I have worked with countless patients through their journeys.  While there were some similarities I am sure my experience was just as different as the next person."
5. Do what you can, as long as you feel up for it.
"My Dad, who was a fairy farmer, milked the cows even when he was battling his own cancer," says Bob, who has glioblastoma (GBM), the most common and aggressive type of primary brain cancer. "In fact, he milked them right before he went into the hospital for the last time. He taught me that, no matter what, it was important to stay active doing what you love. That’s the attitude that has helped me on my journey with glioblastoma. My doctor knew that I wanted to stay active and live as long as possible, so he encouraged me to try Optune, a wearable, FDA-approved device. My biggest concern was if I would be able to wear Optune around the farm. I didn’t want to stay in the house and waste away. I wanted to stay busy, just like my dad. Would there be a problem using it while working in our chicken barns or doing other farm chores? Farming is physical work, and I would need to be able to move, lift, and use the equipment. My doctor told me I could do anything I wanted to as long as I feel good, which was the answer I wanted to hear." 
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.