After the rollercoaster journey of receiving a cancer diagnosis and treatment, many cancer survivors and their employers believe that after a return to work plan has been agreed and a few reasonable adjustments have been made, life will be pretty much back to normal in a few weeks. 

However, this can be a particularly difficult time for those recovering from cancer, often made worse by the feeling that support is no longer available, needed or a right to receive. Many of those difficulties are psychological in nature but are not discussed by those recovering from cancer for fear of making things even more difficult at work. However, for a return to work to be successful, employers as well as cancer survivors need to be aware of these issues and deal with them appropriately.

It is often the case that for those who have cancer, work offers an important lifeline back to normality and wellbeing. But recovery is a process, not an event. It takes place gradually, over time and often takes longer than hoped or expected. Resilience is required as well as patience and understanding.

Cancer treatment is not only profoundly, physically traumatic but is also emotionally exhausting as individuals deal with the  implications of the diagnosis, the uncertainty, the upheaval, the impact on their family and friends, and the loss of routine.

Some of the typical, psychological issues that cancer survivors face are:

  • Feeling abandoned after treatment
  • Fearing recurrence – every ache and pain causes anxiety
  • Feeling a sense of loss – of one’s past life and certainties
  • Feeling insecure and vulnerable, and not trusting one’s body
  • Feeling self-conscious about physical change
  • Feeling frustrated, annoyed and depressed because of overwhelming fatigue (and fatigue and low mood amplify each other)
  • Feeling insecure at work because of changes in structure and staffing whilst absent on sick leave

Clinicians and employers tend to focus on physical recovery rather than these ‘softer’ issues. And give very little advice or guidance about when is the right time to return to work let alone about feelings or emotions. In the meantime many cancer survivors are unwilling to admit to or discuss any of these issues particularly with their employer for fear of how they will be judged. With the mindset, “It’s bad enough to have had cancer without being seen as an emotional wreck on top of that”.

So what’s the solution? Getting back to work is one major way of mitigating some of the anxieties cancer brings. Because it requires the individual to think about ordinary, day to day, external, objective issues – not their cancer. Some organisations set up a buddy scheme to enable individuals to provide mutual support and help them see that they are not alone in their fears. A cancer support group might also be a practical way for an employee to find peer support. Macmillan offers guidance on setting up your own support group or joining an existing group over on the Cancer support groups section of their site.

Finally, coaching or counselling or a similar form of one-to-one support can make a significant difference. Giving an individual time to reflect with someone about their experience and to integrate it into their life – both at work and outside work – can begin to give individuals the sense of control that they may have been denied during treatment. 

Do you have a question about work and cancer? Email us at workandcancer@macmillan.org.uk.

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