Returning To Work After Cancer: How To Deal With Co-Workers


Thanks so much to everyone who commented and shared their experiences of how to handle job applications and interviews after a diagnosis of cancer. I loved that many of you (myself included) have decided to be open and upfront about the cancer experience, but of course I also respect that others would prefer to keep it private, and I hope yesterday’s post was a help in realizing your right to do so.

Today I thought we could discuss what happens for those of us who return to our old jobs after time off for cancer treatment (I hesitate to say we are the “lucky” ones who get time off,  for I am also aware that taking time off is not an option or a choice for some).  You may be wondering how your boss and co-workers will react to you. Will they avoid you or any mention of cancer or will they ask you intrusive questions? Will they be supportive?  Or will you be stigmatized by your illness? Will it affect promotional opportunities?

Assuming your co-workers and bosses will be curious about your illness, some will ask questions out of concern for your progress, while the office gossips may be more interested in sharing in the drama of cancer. I think the following quote captures what the experience of returning to work can be like:

When I went back to work, for instance, I told only a few colleagues about my diagnosis. I couldn’t handle being smothered in sympathy every time I walked down the hall. I couldn’t deal with probing questions about my lumpectomy. And I couldn’t withstand the whispered stories about the coworker who had died of breast cancer four years earlier. My skin was too thin to protect against uninvited curiosity and concern. Stupid Cancer 

So how you do handle their questions?

It can be unsettling to find the demarcation lines between your personal and professional life have become blurred by your illness, so my first suggestion is that you only share what you feel comfortable sharing. If you want to share all the details, then by all means, go ahead; but equally it is ok to tell people that you are doing fine now and do not wish to discuss your illness at work.

One of the difficulties that people with cancer report is having to deal with the myths and misperceptions of what a diagnosis of cancer means. Despite more awareness and openess when it comes to discussing cancer, there are still those who believe that a diagnosis is  a death sentence, or that cancer is somehow contagious,  or that cancer means you are now less productive as a worker or team member. In this situation a lack of communication will only make the situation more difficult, so strive for open and honest communication with your work colleagues. Reassure them that you are doing ok and that you still want to be a valued member of the team.  If there are things that you are not ready to undertake initially, then be honest, and ask for help if you need it.

Prioritize work tasks, say no to unreasonable demands,  know your rights,  become comfortable with delegating and learn some simple stress-relieving tips you can do at work for those times when you feel overwhelmed.  If all this sounds simple, I know from personal experience it isn’t always quite so straightforward, but I do want to stress that preparing yourself as much as you can in advance of returning to work is important. Above all, make your health your priority.  You do have options and you do have rights. Be confident and prepared to put them into practice.

Do you have any tips you can share about how to make the transition back to work after cancer treatment easier?

Related Research:

Return to work of breast cancer survivors: a systematic review of intervention studies