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Returning To Work During or After Cancer Treatment: Part 2

This is the second part of a three-part series which deals with common concerns on returning to work after a cancer diagnosis.

In Part 1 of this series, I shared some tips with you on how to prepare for your re-entry into the workplace. In this article we will look at practical ways to handle issues such as fatigue and concentration, managing your workload, and dealing with stress.

Let’s start with some tips on coping with fatigue as it’s probably the biggest challenge you will face, regardless of whether you are working during treatment or returning to work after treatment has ended.

Coping With Cancer-Related Fatigue

Cancer-related fatigue (CRF) is increasingly recognized as one of the most common and distressing side effects of cancer and its treatments. It has been estimated that from one quarter to nearly all cancer patients experience CRF during and after treatment.  Although things generally improves after therapy is completed, some level of fatigue may persist for months, or even years, following treatment.

Commenting on the impact of CRF on her own work, Kate Bowles, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, says, “The main advice I give is that chemo related fatigue is real and lasting. And also that your priorities change, often in very empowering ways. I am very calm in my job, because I really know now that it’s just a job.”

A lot of cancer patients don’t report fatigue to their doctors because they think that nothing can be done for it. In fact, there are things that can be done to alleviate the debilitating effects of CRF.  If left untreated, fatigue may lead to depression and profoundly diminish your quality of life, so it’s important that you speak to your doctor if fatigue is an issue for you. Before you can address CRF specifically, your doctor needs to determine if there are any underlying medical issues which may be contributing to your fatigue.

Making some adjustments to your everyday routines can also help you cope with CRF.

Here are three ways to do this.

1. Make deposits in your ‘energy bank’

You may find it helpful to think of your energy reserves as your ‘energy bank’. Whenever you do an activity you make a withdrawal. And when you rest you make a deposit. It’s important to balance withdrawals with deposits. If you keep doing too much whenever you feel like you have energy, you’ll run out completely and not have any reserves left for the things that are important.

2. Plan your day

Planning is key when you have fatigue. Write a ‘To Do’ list each evening so you can prioritize the things you need to do at work the next day.

3. Do some regular light exercise

Try to get out in the fresh air for a walk at lunchtime.  Although exercising may be the last thing you feel like doing when you’re tired, if you don’t exercise, you’re more likely to experience fatigue.

I also recommend you download a free app called Untire, which contains a program that will help you track and improve your energy levels. The app uses theories and techniques from scientifically proven cognitive behavior therapy, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, positive psychology and physical exercise interventions.

Time Management 

Managing your time at work is all about learning to work smarter, not harder.  It’s not about packing more tasks into your day, but about streamlining how you go about your work and prioritizing key tasks.

Here are seven tips to develop better time management skills.

1. Track your time and eliminate the non-essential

First things first. If you’re going to manage your time better, you need to figure out where you spend your time. Use a tool like RescueTime to track your activities for a week. This will help you determine how much you can realistically accomplish in a day, identify the time of day when you are most productive, and uncover daily timesucks, such as reading emails (unsubscribe from those e-mail lists you no longer need).  When we can clearly identify our daily time sinks and remove them, we become more focused and productive.

2. Do the most important thing first

Mark Twain once said, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” The point that Twain was making is that you should take care of your biggest and most-challenging tasks first thing in the morning.

Each day, identify the one or two tasks that are the most important to complete, and get started right away on them. If a task is too big to complete in one day, divide it into smaller tasks to be spread out over several days.  When you have accomplished a task, mark it off your list with a pen. This provides a psychological boost as it gives you visual confirmation that you are getting somewhere.

3. Batch related tasks

Batching refers to the process of using blocks of time for specific repetitive tasks. Different tasks demand different types of thinking, so save yourself time and mental energy by focusing on one type of task before moving on to the next.

4. Focus on one task at a time

Finding it hard to concentrate is a common effect of having had cancer. To combat this, focus on one task at a time instead of multi-tasking.  Research tells us it can take up to 30 minutes to return your attention to whatever you were doing before an interruption. Put your phone away, close your email applications and any unnecessary browser windows on your computer. Concentrate fully on the one task you need to complete.

5. Take regular breaks

Allow yourself down-time between tasks.  Break for lunch and take additional short breaks throughout the day. Maintain your energy reserves with nutritious snack breaks. Pack nuts, fresh fruits and veggies, hummus, or low-fat cheese to take to work with you.

6. Set time limits for tasks

Give yourself a certain time by which you will complete a task. For instance, reading and answering email can consume your whole day if you let it. Instead, set a limit of one hour a day for this task and stick to it. The easiest way to do this is to assign a solid block of time to this task rather than answering email on demand.

7. Let go of perfectionism

Stop trying to be perfect. When you’re a perfectionist, nothing will ever be good enough. That means you’ll stick with a task long past the deadline. You’ll say yes to too many things and take on too much in an effort to prove to yourself, and others, that nothing has changed since your cancer diagnosis.

Sometimes you need to realize that good enough is sufficient and when you reach that point, then simply stop. This is not an excuse to do a poor job, but it is intended to give you permission to do a good job and then leave it there. Don’t waste precious energy and time polishing and perfecting something past that point.

Managing Stress

It’s normal to feel some stress on returning to work, so it makes sense to plan ahead for how to deal with stressful situations. Here are some tips to help you.

1. Identify your body’s stress response

How we experience stress is individual to each of us. Learning to tune into what happens in your body when you perceive a stressful situation is the first step in understanding your own individual stress response. Does your jaw clench? Is your breath shallow? Are your muscles tense? When you become more aware of your physical response to stress, it will help regulate the tension when it does occur.

2. Slow down and pay attention to your breathing

When stress hits, everything speeds up. Our thoughts race, our heart pounds and our breathing increases. This can make it difficult to think rationally. Consciously slow down your breathing. When we are stressed we tend to breathe more shallowly.  When you feel stressed, practice taking some slow deep abdominal breaths.  Deep abdominal breathing slows the heart down, lowers blood pressure and helps us feel calmer.

3. Come back to your senses

One of the best ways to stop getting lost in your thoughts is to come to your senses and ground yourself in the present moment. A simple exercise is to notice five things around you. Practice this periodically throughout the day, especially at those times you find yourself getting caught up in your thoughts and feelings.

  • Look around and notice five things that you can see;
  • Listen carefully and notice five things that you can hear;
  • Notice five things that you can feel in contact with your body (for example, your feet upon the floor, your back against the chair);
  • Finally, do all of the above simultaneously.

4. Take Some Exercise

Physical activity is one of the simplest and most effective ways to reduce stress and anxiety – providing a natural outlet for your body when you are exposed to too much adrenaline.

Research has shown that there are many benefits to exercise. Not only does it help reduce the symptoms of fatigue, exercise encourages your body to release endorphins – often called ‘feel good hormones’. When released, endorphins can lift your mood and sense of well-being.

Go for a walk, head to the gym or find a lunch-time yoga class. Throughout the day take short breaks to stretch or do simple exercises at your desk.

Wrapping Up

Handling your re-entry to the workplace after a cancer diagnosis is all about organizing your time better, prioritizing your workload, establishing boundaries and becoming more comfortable with saying no to unreasonable demands.

Above all, it’s about making your health your top priority. Get adequate sleep, eat healthily, take some exercise and incorporate stress-management techniques into your daily routines.

I know from personal experience it isn’t always quite as straightforward as I have laid things out here. There will be many ups and downs. Deborah Bowman, a Professor of Medical Ethics, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2017, urges self-kindness and patience. “Don’t be afraid to say if it becomes unexpectedly (or expectedly!) difficult,” she says,  “be kind to yourself and allow others to be kind to you too. Accept it may be up and down rather than a straightforward trajectory. Celebrate your good moments and forgive yourself the harder moments.”


Next month in Part 3 of this Returning To Work series, we will take a look at the opportunities and challenges of finding a new job after cancer.  Until then, if you have any tips to share with readers about how you coped on returning to work, please share them in the comments below.

Returning To Work After Cancer Treatment. Part 1: Preparing the Ground

This month’s article is the first in a three-part series which deals with common concerns on returning to work after a cancer diagnosis and offers practical solutions for helping with your re-entry into the workplace.

A diagnosis of cancer is a profound disruption in our lives, leaving no area untouched. Cancer impacts our family life, our relationships, and our careers.  If you have been absent from work, the decision to return often brings with it mixed emotions.  While you may welcome a return to normality, a steady income, the company of work colleagues and a sense of identity, you may also be feeling apprehensive about how you will cope.

Particularly if you are used to identifying closely with your job, a prolonged absence from work can be difficult. Even if you continue working during treatment, you may also experience some difficulties. You may be wondering how you will cope with your workload.  Will your co-workers treat you differently? How will your boss react to you? Will your promotional opportunities be affected?

Although the majority of those who return (or continue) to work after cancer adapt well, some will encounter difficulties. In Part 1 of this series, we will take a look at some practical ways to prepare for your re-integration back into the workplace.

When Do You Know It Is Time To Return To Work?

There is no one-size fits all answer to the question of when it’s time to return to work. It will depend on the type of treatment you received, your financial situation, your physical and emotional state and other personal factors.

Only you know whether it would be better for your psychological health to be at home, away from any professional stresses, or at work, where distractions may take your mind off other things.  Chris Lewis, founder of Chris’s Cancer Community, believes that “work can be a fantastic therapy, when dealing with life’s challenges. We feel valued, and of course, can provide an income for our family.”

On the other hand, perhaps you see cancer as an opportunity to re-evaluate your career. You may find that your work priorities have changed, or you feel unable to keep up with the demands of your previous work pace. Perhaps you want a new job which will allow you more flexibility to pursue other goals or you may want to explore working in a field which is more personally fulfilling (we will look at this in more detail in Part 3).

Preparing the Ground

Doing some groundwork before you return to work should help make re-entry more manageable.  Plan in advance how you will respond to questions from co-workers, deal with your boss’s expectations, and handle your workload. Here are some tips to help you.

1. Making adjustments and accommodations to your work environment

Your employer has a duty to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to your workplace and working practices. What is considered a ‘reasonable adjustment’ depends on factors such as the cost and practicality of making the adjustment, which is why it’s important to discuss things as soon as possible with your employer.    Some things to discuss include the possibility (at least temporarily) of a phased or gradual return to work, job-sharing, working from home or flexi –time.

A word of caution here. It is not unusual for part-time work to turn into a full time job. Set clear boundaries about what is achievable in the hours you have agreed to work.  If you are thinking about working from home, be aware that this can be quite isolating. Will you miss the camaraderie of the office?

Breast cancer blogger @lifeafterlola suggests that “A phased return is good, combining time back at work with work from home or a day off on, say, a Wednesday to break up the fatigue. The hardest thing to cope with,” she says,  is getting back up to pace with early mornings, late finishes and travel on top of work and social adjustment.” Julia, co-founder of breast cancer Twitter chat, #BCCWW offers a practical tip to reduce the stress of traveling to work.  “If it’s possible travel outside rush hour,” she advises.

Next, think about your physical environment at work. Revisit you work-station. Does it need to be redesigned or fitted with equipment such as back support or other devices to make you more comfortable?

The size of your company may affect how much accommodation to your needs you can expect to get. Larger organizations are in a better position to offer you more flexibility and support, but most employers will be understanding if you communicate your needs clearly with them. It may be helpful to have a letter from your doctor to document any accommodations required.

2. Getting up to speed with changes at work

Depending on how long you have been absent, you may find things have moved on since you were away from work. If this is the case, take some time to get up to speed with new systems and developments. This may include attending formal training sessions in advance of getting back to work, or having a colleague take some time to get you caught up again.  Julia explains how she struggled initially with her job which “involved reading lots of draft legislation, policy papers, etc.” and after speaking to her boss, did some refresher training to get up to speed again.

3. Updating your co-workers on your plans to return to work

Most of us have built up a carefully constructed professional persona and we work hard at protecting it by keeping a fairly strict line of demarcation between our personal and professional lives. It can be unsettling to find these lines have become blurred by your illness.

Not everyone knows the right thing to say or how best to offer support. Connecting with colleagues before you return to work can, in the words of Julia, “get a little of the first day nerves out of the way, especially  if you are feeling anxious about their reactions to your changed appearance.”

In general people will take their cue from you, so take the lead with colleagues. Talk them on the phone, send an email or arrange to meet for coffee or lunch. Reassure them that you are doing ok and that you still want to be a valued member of the team.  Decide in advance how much you are comfortable sharing.  If you are a naturally open person, then you can talk frankly with your work colleagues, letting them know what they can do to help you ease back into work. If you are more private, just tell everyone that you appreciate their asking, you are doing ok now and you are looking forward to getting back to normal.

4. Communicating with your manager

Most managers and bosses will support your transition back to work, but they may be unsure of how best to handle this. As Kate Bowles points out in this post: “The particular challenge of having oncology patients (which is what we still are) as staff under your management, as colleagues and as workplace friends, leaves everyone falling back on adhoc interpersonal skills.”

It can be difficult for managers and colleagues to know how to strike the right balance between giving you extra support and allowing you to carry on as normal.  As Julia points out “Your line manager isn’t a mind reader. Be honest about what you can/can’t do, offer solutions, about managing work and don’t just leave it to them.  It should be a two way process.”

For your part, you may have concerns about being perceived as a productive member of the team.  Open and honest communication is key here. Check in regularly with updates on how you are coping and to review your productivity.   If there are things that you are not ready to undertake initially, then be honest, and ask for help if you need it. Set clear boundaries that will allow you to say no to certain types of requests, such as staying late for non-essential projects.    “Learn to say I can’t ….YET,” advises Siobhan Freeney, founder of Being Dense, an organization which raises awareness of Breast Density and its associated links to breast cancer and screening.

A note on work discrimination. Legally, your cancer history can’t be used against you in the workplace. But it can be difficult to determine this, because discrimination can be subtle.   Know your rights. Look into whether you are protected by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act or your state’s Fair Employment Law.

5. Book a counseling session

If you are worried about how you will cope on your return to work, consider booking some sessions with a counsellor or cognitive behavioral therapist to build up your confidence and coping skills.  Some employers have an employee assistance program in place which allows you to speak in confidence to a trained professional about your concerns. Ask if this is available in your company.

Learning some stress management techniques in advance of your return will also help you cope better (we’ll look at this in more detail in Part 2).

6. Stock your freezer

When we’re tired, we tend to gravitate towards processed food which depletes our energy reserves further. Siobhan suggests you “stock up handy home cooked freezer meals in advance of returning to work to avoid being tempted to skip dinner when over-tired.”

The key to managing the stress of working after a cancer diagnosis is to prepare as much in advance of your return to the work place. Be prepared to be flexible in your planning approach. Cancer recovery is an ongoing process. There will be many ups and downs.  You may have to deal with late side-effects of treatment or side-effects related to medication. Be ready to adjust your work practices if and when you need to.

Next month, I will share more tips and practical advice on handling your work load, managing your time and dealing with issues such as fatigue and concentration once you return to work. Until then, if you have any tips to share with readers about how you prepared your own return to work, please share them in the comments below.