Head & neck cancer

A place for people affected by head and neck cancers, including oral, throat , larynx (voice box), salivary glands, middle ear, and sinus and nasopharyngeal cancer. Support one another, ask questions, and share experiences.

Going back to work?

Posted by


I am 7 months post a right sided neck dissection & had about 1/3 of my tongue removed followed by RT. I am now 2 months finished RT. Just wondering how long everyone waited until returning to work? I am hoping to go back soon but get a knot in my throat everytime I think about it, my speech is different & my phone involves meeting clients face to fact & on the phone so am very nervous about this. I feel physcially ready (i think!) but mentally im not so sure. Going to meet my employer in a few weeks so going to ask maybe about returning part time.

Anyone else find the return to work difficult?


Northernstar x

Posted by

Hello Northernstar.  I'm probably at a similar stage to you, I had neck dissection in April and finished RT and Chemo the end of July.  I think if I'd had a different sort of job I could have gone back a few weeks ago.  However with my current position I feel, and so do my team, that I'm still months away from being fit. 

It's mainly the practicalities of it.  In an average work day I'd walk about 5 miles.  I'd be expected to communicate clearly with clients and be smartly groomed.  There is no time or opportunity to eat outside of the lunch hour.  At the moment I need a long nap if I walk more than a mile, I don't always hear properly with my hearing aids and my voice is so croaky some days that nobody can understand me.  Getting into a tight fitting business suit is not an option with a PEG and I still haven't worked out what to do with my hair.  I now have 8" of roots and hair dye is banned until Feb 2014 because of the chemo.  My dietician now has me on a routine of grazing on small hourly snacks and the only sort of food I can eat needs a kitchen to prepare it in.

What I do find worrying is that my brain has certainly slowed down.  It takes me longer to learn anything, I don't remember so well, I type slower and it takes me ages to reconcile figures.  Has anyone else had this problem?

I think you are definitely right to think about just going back part time to start with.  It'll be good for you to have a chat with your employer, they may be able to adjust your work to help with anything that is a particular problem for you.   You do have some employee rights about all this sort of thing, someone on the Macmillan support line explained it very well for me.  You might find it useful to have a chat with them.  Take care and good luck.  xx

Posted by

Hi there - I finished my RT/Chemo  treatment 28 November 2012 (no surgery) and I worked from my laptop at home when and if I felt like it (great employer - did not even put a sick note in and had an excellent assistant in the office). I went back to a very demanding job (mentally) the first week in June this year BUT I work from home Mondays & Fridays and go into the office 3 days and work at home most evenings.

I can honestly say I am shattered by Thursday teatime and I would not be able to commit to 5 days in the office. I feel confident in meeting customers locally but do not travel to meetings as I used to do.

I think returning to work is a double edged sword - for me I do not have time to sit and think and let my mind wander to places in needs to stay away from, interaction with colleagues is good and it widens the world that we have been forced to make smaller.

I think it depends on the job - Margaret there is no way I could walk 5 miles and I maybe don't have as many issues as you describe. I believe there is a legal duty from the employers side to have a phased return to work but they can dictate the "phase" I believe the problem may arise when "the role in which people are contractually employed can no longer be fulfilled" I don't think the employer has a legal duty to find another role in the business but they should have a moral duty.

If you are employed on fulltime basis hopefully your employer will look at a phased return on a part time basis but bear in mind  contractually they may not be obliged to do so.

Depending on your relationship with your employer it may be as well to get some advise from the Mac team so that you know your rights before you have the meeting. I have seen a couple of instances of the most understanding employer at diagnosis turn into the most uncompassionate employer after long term sick combined with the inability to return to the role they were employed to do.

Margaret - I did not put a chemical colour on my hair until last month but I did have the old fashioned plastic cap and bits pulled through and coloured - this was given OK  by Mrs NHS 6 months after treatment.

Posted by


I found returning tough. But I think it is an individual thing and depends on your treatment, confidence and type of job etc.

I wouldn't go until you feel confident about it mentally. I think for most people it is recommended that you go back by phase return and it is possible to have restricted duties ie. only do things you are comfortable with initially and then build up from there.

I met up with someone from Macmillan who advises about returning to work. Although a lot of what she said was common sense it was good for me to hear it and voice my concerns. I found her incredibly helpful. There is info on Macmillan (http://www.macmillan.org.uk/Cancerinformation/Livingwithandaftercancer/Workandcancer/Supportforemployees/Workcancer/Goingbacktowork.aspx) that i expect you've seen, but you can always ask your doc/CNS about u meeting with someone, if you wanted to.

Ann Margret
Posted by
Hi I have experienced the return to work once and am about to again. My mouth cancer was originally treated by chemo and radio which finished in January 2012 I returned to work 2 and a half months later in May 2012 on a very phased basis initially working just a few hours every other day and building back up to full time over about 10 weeks. It worked reasonably well but did find myself getting very tired and in retrospect do feel that perhaps I went back too early. Luckily my employer was very good and did not put too much pressure on me and after about 6 months felt I was fully operational again and I began to enjoy the feeling of being normal again. My cancer then came back in April this year and in June I had a large part of my tongue removed along with the lymph nodes on the left side of my neck and a left forearm flap. I am planning to return to work on 04/12 and am feeling very apprehensive. My main concern is my speech which has been affected and how tired I might feel. I also struggle with swallowing and cannot eat solid food. I am trying not to use my PEG so have to drink Fortisips almost constantly ( at least that is what it feels like). I am a manager and team leader so communication is an important part of my role and I worry that I will not be understood. However my team and colleagues have been fantastic and have kept up a steady stream of visits and have reassured me that they understand about 95% of what I say. The fact that they have also seen me with my scars and witnessed my dribbling also helps. I am sure I will be able to find ways around anything too difficult like presentations and hopefully find some smart clothes that I can wear with my PEG. Sorry for the long ramble but to sum up, make sure you feel ready, last time I made a point of going into the office for a couple of hours before my actual return. This made sure that people saw me with my my grey and curly hair which had previously been dark and straight. Make sure you have support from colleagues and managers and most of all don't overdo it. The employer should also make reasonable adjustments to enable you to do your job if there are parts that are difficult. You will probably find that people understand your speech far better than you think they do, this has certainly been the case for me Initially I avoided using the telephone but now I find that if I take it slowly I can make myself understood. I hope the meeting with your employer goes well. I will let you know how I get on when I return next month.
Posted by

Thank you all so much for taking the time to reply. I am meeting my employer next month so hopefully they will allow me to return part time.

Margaret Ann - I understand exactly how you feel. My job is in an office, but I also meet clients face to face & alot of phone work / basically commiucating with people - I am dreading this. But as you say i think my speech is worse than it actually is - alot of my problem is mentally & this is something I can not fix by sitting at home. I do need to get back to "normal life".

I think with the type of cancer affecting speech is one of the most difficult things for me - if it was somewhere else on my body i could cover it up/ it wouldnt be so public. With a neck scar and speech i find it so hard. There are only so many scrafs i can wear!!!

Hope the sun is shining for you all today :)


Emma Hock
Posted by
Hi Northernstar, Margaret & others, I finished RT & chemo for nasopharyngeal carcinoma mid-Dec 2011. My work were great and lent me a laptop so I could do bits from home as and when I felt like it. Did a bit of work during treatment before I got too ill and then started to build it up slowly during my recovery, and the hours I did came off my sick leave. Went back at the start of May 2012 (as soon as I had had the results from my PET scan) full time - they let me work 3 or 4 days from home to begin with (as I commute 30 miles or so by train) but I was able to increase my days 'in' to 4 or 5 by August. They were really good and wanted to make sure I was totally ready but I knew I was as it had started to feel like I was skiving! I found it tiring (and I still do - especially with a small child too as there is no time to rest really) but it seems to be the physical things that really set off my residual fatigue so if I had a more physical job I might still be off! Walking isn't much of a problem (I walk at least 3 miles a day round work, between sites and to and from the station at either end) but moving office in January this year nearly killed me! I know what you mean about the hair too - the bottom bit that fell out from the RT has grown back curly! But now it looks okay - it feels a bit odd having hair that is half straight and half curly but everyone says it looks nice. I haven't coloured it either since treatment but that is more a tribute to my Mum, who died almost 5 years ago, whose hair was the colour mine is now. I also struggle a bit with lunch - obviously it takes longer to eat now and I need water with everything but most of the time it is okay. It's just the odd times that people fill the lunchtime period with meetings in my diary and then I get a bit stressed - I've found since treatment that I can't go hungry - I very quickly start to feel unwell. Overall, tiring though it is, I feel the return to work his been really beneficial. It has kept my mind off the illness (although a few people at my work have had some form of cancer so I kind of set up an informal support network!) and made me feel useful and productive, and also introduced a lot of normally in my life when I still feel really abnormal because of the side effects. And of course once you have been really unwell and in hospital it just feels like a luxury to be able to do it. When I was hospitalised I used to dream of walking down the road to get my train to work! I would echo the advice of others though and say that you have to go back when you feel it is right and you feel ready. Good luck! :)
Posted by

Hi Northernstar

I had my surgery in Nov '12, and went back to work in May 2013.  My speech was affected and this was the thing I was most worried about.  My colleagues were great and they can understand me, but I don't answer the phone.  I know I should but am still nervous about it.  I make phone calls at home and most times people can understand me, so not sure what it is about work that makes me so nervous.

I find that if I take my time when I speak people understand me.  I am on a phased return, so I started with a few hours, then half days, and now I work three full days, and work from home the other two.  I hope to go back full time in the new year.

Just take it slow and build up your confidence.

Kimmyone x

Posted by

My Esperance,

going back to work was not good atoll had a lot of pressure put on me to get back to work and did feel the wanted rid of me,

I was diagnosed in Feb. of this year squamous carcinoma right tonsil (T2 N0)Went throw every thing and work't up to 12 sections of RT Then it was to much for me the pain had two weeks off in all went back to work but really was not ready as I found out there was an incidence at work being in charge held responsible as and then dismiss't July the 5th now finding it very hard to get a job as soon as you mention cancer no chance.

I am in commercial cleaning IE Window cleaning and every thing else cleaning wise I would say to any one do not rush back to work

I do feel I was dismiss't unfairly but hit a brick wall with the system.     


Posted by

I went back to work as soon as I could, literally within weeks of finishing my last treatment. I was part time, and I coped fine with it but it didn't pay the rent.

So I applied for a new job, full time, and couldn't cope. The new employer was totally unhelpful, gave me no discretion at all, in fact were very nasty. I quit, then quit everything to take my BA. In those days I got housing benefit & incapacity, but it was still tough, I was always broke, couldn't even afford basic course materials.  I didn't get the degree I deserved: again I had no concessions from the college re my health, no help at all, even though I couldn't physically lift the equipment ~ nobody helped me.

My back was mucked up by the surgery and my left arm doesn't work properly, I'm in constant pain and chronically fatigued.

These days I do a few unpaid hours a week in school, but by 2pm I am totally shattered, no use to anyone. There's no cure for the pain, I'm on Oxycontin  & others but they don't work.  

Posted by

I have hopefully finally resolved my dilemma about work.  I've had an honest chat with my employer and we have both agreed with my Consultant that I am unlikely to ever be able to return to my old job.  However there are one or two things that I am capable of that don't involve going out of the office, using a phone or speaking to clients.  So I am going back to a brand new role with my old employer on January 3rd.  A three month contract for 10 hours a week to deal with the implementation of workplace pension reform legislation.  After that I can decide if I want to do anything else or alternatively we'll negotiate some sort of financial settlement that will let me leave with a lump sum and be eligible to claim benefits.  Hopefully it'll all work out OK as I'm struggling to pay bills at the moment.

Posted by

Hi, northernstar

I finished treatment at the beginning of November 2009. I didn't start back to work until April 2010 and even then it was (1) in a different job, i.e. a desk job, which I could do mostly at home, and (2) on a Graduated Return to Work, i.e. for as few hours a week as I felt able.

The graduated return was supposed to be over eight weeks, as I remember (I was back on full pay, even though I wan't doing full-time hours), but I was allowed to stretch it out by adding two weeks annual leave that I was owed from the previous leave year. So I wasn't back full-time until July, nearly a year after I'd first gone in for surgery.

I never went back to my old job. But I was lucky, because the desk job interested me, and it needed doing, so the team I joined welcomed me right from the start. As things turned out, the knowledge and skills I gained in this new area of work enabled me to apply for (and be offered) a completely different post, which will see me comfortably throught to my retirement.

I had very good support from the Occupational Health Department, whom I had to convince that I was well enough to return. They in turn told my manager what I could and couldn't be expected to manage.

Hope this is helpful and good luck!

Best wishes

Bron x