I’m sure you will have noticed how many stories there are in the press these days about cancer. Sometimes they are about celebrities and sometimes they are about ordinary people who are coping with, living beyond and dealing with varying cancer diagnoses.
These are always inspiring stories of human resilience and emotional strength in the face of gruelling treatment and often terrible uncertainty about outcomes.

There are other stories too about new wonder drugs or new ways of possibly preventing cancer through embracing a new lifestyle. For example, you might do more exercise, practise mindfulness or eat superfoods. Some of this is good advice and some of it is totally unproven.

But what struck me recently was how very few stories there are about the long journey back to normal that most people living beyond cancer face when they return to work. Maybe this is because it's boring; it's not newsworthy. The result is that employees and their employers often have no idea what it's going to be like and have false expectations about what is a normal return to work after cancer. For example, a line manager might say: ‘Shouldn’t she be working full time by now? Maybe she isn’t up to the job any longer?’ And an employee might say: ‘I should be feeling better by now, but maybe I never will?’

So a lack of hard information and real life stories about returning to work after cancer can cause problems both for employers and employees. Certainly most of the people I coach have no idea what lies ahead once treatment is over. In my experience, both employers and those living beyond cancer tend to assume that each week of a phased return to work will be better than the last one. And both employee and employer will assume that after six to eight weeks of returning to work, things will be almost back to normal. The fact is, however, that although a few people do experience this relatively easy return journey, the vast majority don’t.

So what is an employer to do? A few recommendations and observations:

1) Be well informed. Order Macmillan’s Work and Cancer toolkit if you haven’t got one already. There is lots of practical advice in there about how to manage work and cancer

2) Contact Macmilllan’s Work and Cancer team about their training offer, so you can begin to inform and educate line managers on how to help someone return to work 

3) Access consultancy advice on how you might adjust your policies to deal with the ups and downs of an employee returning to work 

4) Encourage managers to hold regular reviews with employees living beyond cancer, for up to a year after a phased return. This is so they remain well informed about an employee’s progress and can provide further support if needed

5) And finally, remember (and remind line managers) that someone diagnosed with cancer is covered by the Equality Act and entitled to reasonable adjustments for as long as they are employed. So you’ll need to be prepared to make changes to support them. 

Returning to work is not a sprint, it’s more like a marathon and sometimes there need to be pauses along the way to draw breath. It’s not a seamless progression but a long and winding road – very like how life is in practice!

In summary, it takes time, patience, imagination and creativity to find the best ways of supporting your staff in a way that works for everyone: your employees, organisation and you. But doing so can really help make all the difference in helping someone successfully return to work after cancer. The true story about working with cancer may not grab the headlines, but that doesn’t make it any less compelling, and employers have a critical role to play.

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Barbara Wilson is Founder of Working with Cancer. For more information visit