Returning to Work after Cancer Treatment: Co-Worker Adjustment

Returning to Work after Cancer Treatment | The Silver Pen

Returning to Work After Cancer Treatment

A dear reader wrote to me recently telling me that returning to work was a challenge not for reasons that you would think. It was challenging because colleagues treated her differently  based on her changed appearance. Further, assumptions were made about her ability to perform her job, so much so in fact that she was offered the duties of a lesser level than she has previously been. As if having FBC (f-bomb breast cancer) isn’t bad enough. I mean, really.

So, the question that she asked was:  “What strategies/advice do you or your readers have about returning to work and ensuring that you are treated fairly in the process of returning to full health?”

Well, as you can imagine, I have a lot to say on this topic, but first of all, I have to express how bummed I am that this happened to her. I have a feeling that this situation is all too common, though.

The thing of it is that even though the public’s understanding of cancer is getting better, sometimes prejudices and fears are still found in the workplace. Even after your cancer treatment has ended, people may face work and workplace discrimination issues.

I’m a big fan of getting OFF of Isolation Island as soon as humanely possible and one great way to do so is to re-enter the working world. It helps boost self-esteem and maintain your identity. It’s also nice to have regular contact with people. Oh, and a paycheck is a lovely Silver Lining.

So, when you go back to work, here are a few of my personal recommendations:

Returning to Work After Cancer Treatment | The Silver Pen

Don’t take it personally because it’s not about you. Really. It isn’t. When people feel uncomfortable around you, acknowledge that your situation remind them of a personal experience with cancer or remind them of their own mortality. They may react awkwardly out of fear or uneasiness about cancer. Now, this is NOT rationalize (bad!) behavior, but acknowledging that it is not about you will go a long way in easing your hurt feelings.

Communicate. Talk with your employer about options for returning. For example, if you feel strong enough (& have the sign-off from your doctors), you may be able to go back to your previous position in a full-time capacity.  However, starting slower might be better for you. For example, flex-time or telecommunicating could be more viable options.

Don’t Overshare. Keep work life just that: work life. Keep any stories about your cancer experience to yourself, at least at work. If someone brings it up, you can say something like, “Thanks for asking; however, I’d really like to keep that part of my life separate from my professional one. I’m just so happy to be back.”

Be Patient with not only yourself but also with your co-workers. Having you back will be an adjustment for them as well. Remember, work (& life!) goes on while we are getting treatment. Your co-workers picked up your job responsibilities while you were gone, so showing them a little appreciation would go along way.

Keep Notes. If the discrimination is readily apparent and consistent, keep detailed notes (including names, dates and times) of every encounter. Otherwise, it becomes a case of “he said, she said” and that never works  out well for anyone.

There are legal protections. The American Cancer Society describes this really well. You have the same rights as anyone else in the workplace and should be given equal opportunities, regardless of whether you tell people at work about your cancer. Hiring, promotion, and how you are treated in the workplace depends entirely on your abilities and qualifications. As long as you are able to fulfill your job duties, you cannot be fired for being sick. You should also not have to accept a position you never would have considered before your illness. Some people with job problems related to cancer are protected by federal laws like the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Other people also benefit from the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This law lets many people with serious illnesses take unpaid leave to get medical care or manage their symptoms. Talk to someone in your human resources department or another workplace expert to find out what your options are.

If you’re looking at returning to work, then YAH for you!  I thought that it was super exciting to return to work after treatment. However, it can also be daunting and stressful. To ensure a smooth transition, please take care of the physical and emotional needs that you may have. I’ll do another post on that soon, but in the meantime, I wanted to respond to the direct question about how to handle the work environment.

Do you all have any thoughts or ideas that you would like to share about how to work with colleagues?

PS – I love love love it when readers suggest topics!



Leave a Reply to Marissa Rapier Cancel reply


  1. says

    I was looking for an image quote to post about returning to work after over 4 months off for breast cancer treatment and happened upon this post. I’d been crying for 15 minutes because the anxiety is getting to me. I do not know what to expect upon my return. My oncologist warned not to pressure myself to be super woman I’d once been prior to surgery and treatment.
    This article helps, in that, it gives me permission to ease into the work regimen at my pace. I get exhausted easily and my job is physical, on my feet. Add to the anxiety is knowing a regional manager is coming to converse with me. I only know this because a coworker mentioned it in passing.
    Thank you and thank serendipity that I find this post.

  2. Carolee Groux says

    After surgery the sooner you can get back to work, even during treatments, (with some flexibility of your schedule), the better you will feel, the less you will brood, and the sooner you can shut the door of the cancer center behind you. I always wore a wig to work so none of my clients knew I had cancer; and only if my associates asked how I was doing, did we even broach the subject. Most were just glad to see me back and looking well. They were all welcoming and supportive; thankfully I worked with a great group of people.

    • Claudia Zonsius says

      I found that most people are very caring and understanding as I continue to work (flex schedule during treatments/side effects) through my 2nd fight w/Cancer. 9 years ago I fought Stage IV Colon Cancer (as my paternal grandmother) after 2 surgeries, I worked half days the week I was not on Chemo. Now I am battling Stage II Breast Cancer (as 2 maternal aunts). Most co-workers and supervisors who know what I am going through are amazed that I can continue to work even in a modified position (I am a nurse previously working in out-patient specialty clinics), and tell me my attitude is inspiring to others. While I appreciate that, I find anything I can continue to do before helps to keep my feet on the ground! It is important to me to be as normal as possible!

      • silverpen says

        Dear Claudia,
        Thank you for sharing your story. I’m so sad & sorry to hear that things have been so difficult for you!
        I wholeheartedly agree with the need to feel as normal as possible. I feel the same way.
        Did you happen to download the Companion Guide? You can get it here for free:
        I hope that it helps!
        Very best,