1. Health

Returning to Work After Cancer


Updated September 28, 2011

Once cancer treatment is complete, many survivors will be eager to go back to work. You may be motivated by financial or economic need, or by the need to return to your “normal life.” However, returning to work isn’t always easy. Whether or not you will be able to function in your old job depends on the treatment you received, ongoing long-term side effects, and the type of job you were previously employed in.

If, for example, your job was physically demanding, you may be less likely to be able to return to it because of fatigue or limitations from your cancer treatment. Those with sedentary jobs are less likely to be impacted in this way, but may still be challenged by changes in the way they are able to think or process information. You may find it difficult to work at the same pace or for the long hours that you previously did.

On a more emotional level, you may wonder how you will handle the relationship aspect of work, such as what to say to your colleagues, or whether or not you will be discriminated against.

Stay in the Loop

Your re-entry into the workforce will likely begin long before you step foot into your old office. Some preparations you might consider to ease your way back to work includes:

  • Providing your employer with updates on your plans to return to work
  • Getting re-acquainted with your old skill set, and updating your knowledge. Possibly you could arrange to attend an educational seminar or read some current literature that applies to your field
  • Working out a schedule. How is it going to feel for you to get up at 6:00 each morning to head to work? What is the commute going to be like?
  • Considering any ongoing side effects and how you will manage them at work. If nausea is still a problem for you, for example, how can you get the best results from your antinausea medications? What about pain? Will you be able to take pain medication at work and remain safe and alert?

Be Realistic with Your Goals

If you have been away from work for some time, you need to be realistic about your goals to return. Ask yourself:

  • Can you return full time?
  • Should you consider part-time or modified work hours? If so, how much is it realistic for you to work?
  • How will you handle the stressors of your job in addition to the stressors on your health?

When It’s Time to Move On

There are a multitude of reasons why you may not be able to return to your old job, and need to consider moving on. Changes to your abilities to perform your job adequately or safely, job stress, or the need for fewer work hours may make you want to move on to different pastures.

There are a few options that might be worth considering:

  • Changing to a different job within the same organization that is less physically or mentally demanding
  • Job sharing with a coworker
  • Reducing the number of hours or shifts worked
  • Seizing the opportunity and finding (or creating!) your dream job
  • Early retirement if you are financially able- here is your chance to get going on all those things you said you’d do when you retired!

Know Your Rights

Many people do not realize that there are laws in place to help protect you from discrimination in the workplace as a result of cancer. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) benefits include:

  • “Reasonable accommodation” for disability- minor changes to your workstation, schedule adjustments etc
  • Employers may only ask job- related medical questions
  • Prohibits employers from firing disabled employees without having first making reasonable accommodation on the job
  • Employers must provide equal insurance benefits to all employees
  • Applies only to businesses with more than 15 employees

Another piece of legislation that may be of help is the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This act gives employees the right to take time off work to manage their illness, or if they are caring for an ill dependent. This 12-week unpaid leave of absence does not need to be taken all at once. In fact, you can use it in increments of only a few hours at a time, so it may be ideal if you are continuing to work while receiving treatments, or going to doctor appointments.

Summing it Up

Returning to work is often a hopeful sign of recovery, and a blessed step toward normalcy. However, it is important that you understand your limitations in returning to work, as well as your rights as you embark on this next step of your journey.


Bradley, C., Given, B., Given C., Kozachik, S. “Physical, Economic, and Social Issues Confronting Patients and Families” in Yarbro, C., Frogge, M., Goodman, M., Groenwald, S. eds. (2000) Cancer Nursing: Principles and Practice 5th ed. Jones and Bartlett: Sudbury, MA. (pp. 1550- 1565)

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