Re-Entering the Work Force

Like many patients, you may have taken time off from work during treatment and are now exploring the ideas of re-entering the workforce or chasing new life goals. Doing so can be a challenging experience, and it's one that's different for everyone. For some people, going back to work is a welcome return to normalcy. For others, it's a source of great anxiety yet a financial necessity.

Mixed emotions are normal, so give yourself plenty of time to work through them. Setting career goals, following a new dream, managing expectations, understanding what you are legally required to tell your employer about your medical condition, determining any necessary modifications you'll need and seeking support can all help you clear your head and ease the transition.


Before you jump right back into work, it's important to re-evaluate your career goals. Do you still want the same things as before your diagnosis, or have your priorities shifted?

It's also important to re-examine your career abilities. Talk to your doctor about how your follow-up treatment schedule and long-term side effects might affect your ability to perform the same job you had before cancer. Depending on the results of that conversation, you may decide that you want to first try part-time work to ease back into the routine. Or, you may need to change course and pursue a career that is less physically demanding.


In addition to reflecting on your career goals and abilities, it's important to manage your expectations. It's unrealistic to assume that everything will be the same as it was before your diagnosis. Before returning to the office, think about all of the possible scenarios you might encounter. For example, brainstorm ways to get up to speed on everything that happened in your absence. Perhaps you can attend a training session or review recent projects. Also, run through possible reactions from your co-workers. Some people may keep their distance and act awkwardly, while others may ask you direct personal questions. Anticipate all possible scenarios and how to react so you're prepared for that first day back.


The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits current and future employers from asking about your medical history. In other words, you aren't obligated to tell anyone about your cancer, so it’s up to you how much you want to disclose. In some cases, however, it may be necessary for you to talk to your employer. For instance, if you'll require reasonable accommodations, such as a flexible schedule or modified equipment, your employer is only required to comply if he or she knows about your condition.


Even though you are now outside of your primary treatment, you may be dealing with difficult side effects that might require temporary adjustments at work, such as a flexible schedule, reduced hours, a redesigned workstation, the ability to work from home and/or altered responsibilities. Although your employer is required under the ADA to provide reasonable accommodations, it's important to not take advantage of that fact and to be fair and upfront about your requests.

Depending on your job, it might be a good idea to talk to your supervisor about your workload. Be realistic about what you can manage. Work together to reassign duties as needed and to prioritize what's left.

You may find that your energy fades more quickly than it used to. If so, track your energy levels at different times of the day for a couple of weeks. Look for patterns, and then try to schedule your most important work for when you typically feel your best.

Managing Your Fatigue at Work

Some cancer survivors experience long-lasting fatigue. This can make people feel too tired to even eat, and going to or staying at work could be difficult. These tips may help manage fatigue while at work.

  • Take it slow. Work at a moderate pace to prevent exhaustion. Prioritize. Try to use your energy on the tasks that are most important.
  • Organize your workspace. Rearrange your most commonly-used items to reduce reaching or searching for them. Instead of using over-the-head storage, keep items lower for easier access.
  • Schedule breaks for rest. Balance periods of rest and work throughout the day. Short, frequent breaks can be very beneficial, even if you don’t feel fatigued.
  • Practice proper body mechanics. Make simple changes in your daily activities to avoid fatigue. Sit in a chair with good support, bend at the knees instead of at the back and take even breaths.
  • Make yourself comfortable. Wear clothing that allows you to breathe and move easily. Avoid extreme temperatures and other job conditions that can cause discomfort.
  • Keep your body healthy. Make sure you are meeting your calorie needs, especially during busy work days. Drink at least 64 ounces of water each day and consume foods that can help decrease feelings of fatigue, such as yogurt, nuts, tea and mint. Talk to your doctor or dietitian about additional nutrition recommendations that are right for you.


When you talk to your supervisor – about regular work activities or something related to your health – do your best to project confidence, competence and reassurance that your workload is under control. As time passes, continue to work hard to maintain clear and constant communication with your co-workers. For example, if you encounter a particularly difficult period, be upfront about it and let your supervisor and colleagues know so they can help pick up the slack. Then, when you bounce back, do what you can to return the favor. In short, the more you communicate, the less stressful your work life will be.

Benefits of Returning to Work

In addition to adding some financial security, returning to work can bring many benefits:

  • Restoring structure to your daily routine
  • Providing you with a sense of purpose
  • Helping you feel more productive
  • Distracting you from health concerns
  • Promoting your independence
  • Boosting your self-esteem
  • Helping you feel connected with others


Don't assume you must handle this transition on your own. Returning to work is no small feat, so find a counselor with whom you connect or seek a support group where you can talk to people in similar situations. Your company's benefits package may offer occupational health services. Help is available if you seek it out.

Finding a New Job

Your health history shouldn't affect your ability to get a job, but you may need to adjust and/or rehearse a few things before sending résumés and going to interviews.

  • Reformat your résumé. If your treatment caused significant gaps in your employment history, you may want to deviate from the standard chronological format in favor of a functional format. Functional résumés highlight job skills and qualifications first, rather than leading with employment history. If your résumé includes dates, you may also want to omit the months and include only the years, or simply list the number of years of service. This allows you to be discreet while still remaining truthful.
  • Rehearse your responses. Although interviewers legally cannot ask about your medical history, they can ask about gaps in employment, so it's important to prepare for this question. What you say is up to you, but here is an example: “I took a short time off to deal with a health issue, but it's now resolved, and I'm eager to get back to work.” Then, immediately turn the focus of the conversation back to your strengths.

Employment Discrimination

If you feel your cancer history is causing your employer to discriminate against you, contact a social worker or legal agency and seek help. Remember, you have rights in the workplace.

  • Accommodations. Under the ADA, you are qualified for your job – and your employer must consider you so – as long as you can successfully perform your job functions with reasonable accommodations.
  • Safety. When it comes to concern for safety, your employer may exclude you from a task only if it poses a direct threat of substantial harm to you or others that a reasonable accommodation cannot eliminate. You may not be excluded for safety reasons based on a hunch, fear or stereotype about cancer.
  • Harassment. Just as other laws prohibit harassment based on race, sex, color, national origin, religion, age and genetic information, the ADA prohibits harassment or offensive conduct based on disability.

Returning to School

After undergoing cancer treatment, you may have concerns about returning to school. You might worry about getting an infection, “catching something” from classmates or not having enough energy. If you spent a considerable amount of time away from school, you may fear not being able to keep up with school work or that your friends and classmates have moved on and won’t welcome you back. Back-to-school jitters make the decision of returning to school difficult, but the benefits of attending school usually outweigh the risks.

Your transition may need to happen slowly, as it can be physically and emotionally tiring. Being prepared may help ease anxiety and any feelings of being overwhelmed. Keep these tips in mind as you prepare to return to school.

  • Notify the school of expected absences to prevent falling behind. You may need extra time to complete assignments while you are at home or in the hospital.
  • Ask for simple accommodations to help you ease the transition, such as having extra time between classes to move from one room/building to another, having two sets of textbooks so you can keep one set at home, and being excused from a physical education class.
  • Look into academic support offered by hospitals to assist you during an extended stay.
  • Consider visiting the school or campus before returning for classes. Meeting with friends or attending a school-hosted event can help you catch up on the latest news.
  • If appropriate, meet with an academic advisor to discuss graduation needs and requirements.
  • If you are a parent sending a child back to school, provide school officials with emergency contact information, including contact information for your child’s oncology team.
  • Maintain open communication and request additional resources from the school, such as emotional and social support, to help transition between school and treatment.
  • Address learning or classroom difficulties. Federal law allows students with disabilities to receive special accommodations. Determine what these may be and make the proper arrangements.


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