Updated: Nov 12, 2020
Life threw me a curve ball and I handled it the best way I could, with dignity and grace. The mountains I had to climb now seem like bumps in the road. I was given terrible news - "you have cancer", but it wasn't the end of the world. I underwent multiple rounds of chemotherapy, I had been pricked and probed with shots and IV's, I had invasive surgery and was zapped with radiation for 6 weeks. All of these things were part of the plan, I knew they were coming. But what I was not expecting was how challenging returning to the workforce would be. This was supposed to be the easy part, right?
The return to work (albeit while still undergoing treatment) is now just the next phase in the recovery process. However, I think there are a few things to acknowledge, maybe breakdown some misnomers, and offer personal advice as I reflect on my first week back:
1. You are back at work so you are all better now.
The good news, yes, I am better and able to return to work and that is a great sign! However, depending on one's cancer journey there still may be a lot that the person is enduring behind the scenes. Some people may be open about their health journey with coworkers while others may keep it close to the vest. I think it is a good reminder that even though someone may look "healthy" and "all better" on the outside, there may still be a lot of pain on the inside.
In my case, I am glad to be returning to work because yes, things are returning to a normalcy. But that doesn't mean I'm magically "cured". There are a number of "medical cocktails" I continue to take to ensure that breast cancer does not recur!
2. Understanding your sense of self
The American Cancer Society suggests that returning to work helps promote a sense of self, purpose, and reminds one that they have a life outside of cancer. There are a lot of benefits that come from these daily interactions with colleagues.
However, I want to bring to light that it can also be scary, and that's OK too! As someone who went through cancer treatments, I do feel different, I do feel like my perspective on life has changed, and although the circumstances of cancer were not ideal, this experience has forever changed and shaped me. There is acceptance and peace that comes with understanding yourself as a survivor.
3. Those who plan achieve
Rethink Pink offers 5 valuable tips for transitioning back to the workforce and planning makes all the difference!
Work can be stressful and induce anxiety on a normal day, let alone returning to work after going through such a life altering health event. A few tips that have helped me profoundly was centered around planning! For example, I rehearsed scripts. I knew a lot of colleagues would be visiting my office to say hello. This was fantastic, but I had to decide (prior) what information about my journey I was going to share. Did they need all of the grueling details, probably not. I picked a few funny stories about losing my eyelashes, or the new "punk rock" hair do I was rocking, and everyone had a good laugh. You cannot take yourself too seriously - Humor is key!
Also, be sure to connect with your boss and HR. You have a lot of rights and protections which can also help if you are looking for accommodations as you return. In the U.S., we have the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Some people also benefit from the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
4. Managing Chemo Brain
What was once debated as not being a legitimate side effect from chemotherapy, oncologists now acknowledge that chemo brain is a real condition impacting one's cognitive ability for up to 6 months post treatment, according to a 2017 study.
We all want to preform well at work. Therefore, I have started to incorporate a few daily habits to offset this side effect.
First, I am not afraid to take notes, or even ask colleagues if I can record a meeting, so that I can listen to it again later and ensure I have captured all of the key take-a-ways.
I also set aside time at the end of the day to make a task list of where I left off on various projects and what priorities are set for tomorrow. This has been extremely helpful because now, when I walk into my office each morning, all of my notes, tasks, and to-do's are right there waiting for me. It not only helps with chemo brain, it reduces stress and anxiety too!
5. Finally, let's take some time to breathe
The breath is one of the most powerful tools we have and is often underutilized. When was the last time you took a deep breath? You know, one of those breaths that fill up your entire lung cavity and travels deep down into your inner belly? Unless you are taking a big sigh of relief, or in a yoga class, taking big belly deep breaths are not unconscious acts.
When you take longer inhales and exhales, you are immediately sending signals to your mind which trigger the nervous system to return to a state of calmness. While we may not all have time to attend a yoga class or sit still and meditate, I would recommend practicing breathing techniques if you notice yourself becoming anxious, heading into a meeting, or before responding to emails. Within seconds you become more mindful and back in control, empowered to tackle the day!