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Nine Tips on Returning to Work after Cancer

ValThis time last year I was preparing to go back to my job as a full time Secondary English teacher after nearly a year off. I’d been treated and operated on for oesophageal cancer – it had been a brutal year to say the least. As I tried to tentatively look forward I had that familiar overwhelming anxiety that cancer leaves you with post treatment (come to think of it, during too…).

So with this in mind, I thought I’d share what the last year has taught me about work after cancer.


  1. Decide what you want to do.

You might already know that you don’t want to go back to work. Or you might know that you can’t. Think it through carefully and practically. Ask yourself what you want, what you can and can’t do post treatment/surgery and what you need financially. Hopefully you’ll come up with an answer.

  1. See Occupational Health. Val

I was lucky – my employer was with me every step of the way and a meeting with an occupational health nurse was a given. I found that the fact they were independent helped. The OC nurse suggested a phased return and put together a schedule – something I would have struggled to do.

  1. Openness is Up To You

Decide how open you want to be at work. It’s up to you what you do and don’t share. You can tell people as much or as little as you want – remember you’re not obliged to tell anyone anything. I found being quite open helped and has helped me to normalise what I’d been through/continue to go through. (As much as cancer is ever normal.)

  1. See it as opportunity.

You’re not the same person who was signed off. The fact that I could and wanted to go back to work after a year off I saw as a positive. Returning after any long break from work is an opportunity to reboot your work practices and habits. You can look at work afresh through the prism of cancer treatment and you’ll probably find you really don’t sweat the small stuff anymore.

  1. Know your support network. Val 2

This is both inside and outside of work.  Who will you go to if you are struggling? Who will you ask about time off for check-ups? Who can you have a moan to if you need to?

  1. Monitor your well-being.

Get advice from your health team, specialist nurse, etc. Regularly ask yourself how you are feeling. Fatigue is often an issue after treatment and surgery so don’t be too hard on yourself. It may take you a while to get up to speed both physically and mentally. I found that months of reading nothing more complex than a magazine (when it got really bad it was daytime TV) due to chemo brain had taken its toll on my ability to concentrate and I had to retrain my brain.

  1. Remember to live.

If you know you had a tendency to let work take over: be mindful of this. Work/life balance is key to your well-being. When I’m pushing myself too far I think back to my mindfulness training (thank you NHS and Maggie’s Centre), I take my emotional temperature and remind myself that no one lies on their death bed wishing they spent more time at work. I find I enjoy each day a lot more since cancer and that includes work.

8.    One last thing.

Tea. Lots of tea.

If you’re about to take the bold step back to work, I wish you well. 

Val Top Tips returning to work after cancer

Valerie Toolin is a 47 year old mum of one, English teacher and is sometimes a bit much. She was brutally treated for Oesophageal cancer for most of 2017.

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Corrina (not verified)

Thanks for sharing. I am returning to some work this Monday after 18months of treatment. I am going in slowly so I don’t overwhelm myself physically or emotionally.. good luck to you!