One of cancer's side effects that you aren’t really aware of until it hits… is the financial cost.
I stopped work the day after my cancer diagnosis and had nine months off. I am in education, and it was considered too high risk (to me) to be in work. Thankfully, I have a very supportive workplace so didn’t suffer with a dramatic loss of income while going through active treatment.
Nevertheless, cancer takes a toll on your finances. You may not need benefits, but it is worth looking into. Macmillan can help with this, if you’re not sure where to start. Also, if you have critical illness on your life insurance, speak to your insurer as soon as you can.
Shortly before starting radiotherapy, I returned to work every morning and then travelled the hour-long journey to have radiotherapy. I was determined to do this, as was desperate to return to ‘normal’ life. But it was incredibly tiring! I had no energy for housework, socialising or anything much really for those five weeks. It was very difficult. But it did mean that I was earning again, which I both needed and wanted to do.
When is the Right Time?
There is no date that you ‘should’ go back. For every cancer, every person and every family it is different. So don’t let anyone tell you that you need to go back if you don’t feel ready. However, if you can go back part-time, I would recommend it. I felt so much better (mentally) for returning to work. I felt useful again and was completely bored being at home.
You may not be able to go back to work as quickly as you would like. Often there are complications from treatments, not least of all fatigue. Fatigue is something that many cancer survivors have to put up with for years; long after friends are expecting you to be back to perfect health again. My advice is to be kind to yourself. Cancer is not like flu, you don’t suddenly spring back.
Of course, you may not be able to afford to be off work for long. Make sure that you know all of your rights in the workplace. And get support from friends and family: could someone make you hot meals for your first week back at work, or help with your laundry or grocery shopping? Don’t be afraid or too proud to ask for help. Often people do want to help, but they aren’t sure how to.
When you do return to work, make sure that you keep your manager in the loop, so that they can support you. They can’t help if they don’t know that you are struggling. All people who have been diagnosed with cancer are protected by the law, and employers are not allowed to discriminate against you. You are entitled to reasonable adjustments, and to apply for flexible hours. Could you work from home one day a week?
Time for a Change?
You may not want to go back to your old job. Many survivors don’t feel like the same person after cancer. You may suffer from anxiety or PTSD, and may not be able to go back to a high-stress or long-hours role. If so, give yourself some time to think about what you really want, and look into different options. Talk to loved ones to see what they think.
Going back to work can be surprisingly difficult, but it is one way to try to reclaim your life; to forge a ‘new normal’. Just make sure that you only do it when you are ready. Speak to your employer so that they can support you. And don’t expect everything to be exactly the same as before. Take your time with any changes, and remember to be kind to yourself.
Alex Dixon is a Stage 3 breast cancer survivor two years past diagnosis. She writes a blog on faith, fiction and cancer-stuff.