Many people with cancer are often keen to return to work as soon as possible. Work can provide a daily routine and a sense of identity outside their illness and treatment regime as well as providing a welcome source of income.

However, before you consider returning to work, you should discuss your situation with both your doctor as well as your employer. 

You may be faced with the prospect of working fewer hours or taking a slightly different approach to carrying out your job. Some people feel well enough to work while still having chemotherapy or radiation treatments. Others may need to take time off from work until their treatment sessions are completed.

It’s Fine To Have Concerns

You may be worried about how your employer and co-workers may react. Similarly, your ability to meet your usual workload may be questioned. One solution is to gradually return to work. As you feel stronger, you can increase your hours and resume more of your standard duties. Alternatively, you may feel physically and mentally fit to resume your previous workload.

Under Australian legislation, all employers are legally required to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate the effects of an employee’s cancer diagnosis.

This could take the form of your employer being flexible with start and finish times, providing you with ergonomic work tools, allowing you to return to work in stages as well as giving you time off to attend medical appointments.

Consult your general practitioner, specialist or rehab provider team about whether you are physically capable of undertaking your routine work. Your employer can ask you to provide them with a fit for work medical clearance or to highlight any alterations they may need to make to accommodate your personal needs.

Getting Ready To Return To Work

There are several things you can do to prepare yourself to return to your work:

  1. Access assistance in getting ready for work: Join a Cancer Support service, such as Valion Health, in partnership with your Income Protection Insurer and Rehab Provider Team
  2. Revisit your lifestyle: Include regular exercise, ensure your diet is healthy, identify fun hobbies or leisure activities you enjoy and always make time for yourself every day
  3. Resume your normal work schedule: Get out of bed at your normal work time, dress for work, do some trial travel runs to work, and test yourself with some familiar work tasks

Your Workplace Legal Protection

Your employer should allow you to return to work providing you have a medical certificate clearing you as fit to return to work. You may also need to demonstrate you can perform your core job tasks providing reasonable changes are made to your workplace.

Some cancer patients continue to confront roadblocks when they attempt to return to work or seek a new job. Employers may not always treat employees or candidates fairly due to misunderstanding about the nature of cancer.

Your employer may not be obliged to accommodate the effects of your cancer diagnosis or treatment regime if they can demonstrate how proposed changes would cause them unjustifiable hardship or that you would not be able to conduct your routine job requirements even if workplace changes were implemented.

Some employers still believe people with cancer take too many sick days others, that cancer can be spread from person to person. 

Australia’s legislation is clear. It is unlawful to unfairly treat or discriminate against staff, who have disabilities including cancer. Similarly, if you are looking for a new role, you have no legal obligation to disclose your cancer history unless your past health has a direct impact on the job you are applying for.

Changing Roles

For many people, their cancer diagnosis and resulting treatment may prompt them to reconsider their career aspirations and values. 

A preference for reducing working hours or work-related stress can come hand-in-hand with a desire to seek out more meaningful work. Moreover, changes in your physical or mental capability or the length of time you’ve been away from work may make returning to your old job difficult.

If you are considering changing jobs, map out a skills inventory and identify job areas where your skills and experience are valued. Also, think about whether working part-time would be a better option for you. 

You may also benefit from additional training and support to assist you in coping with the long-term side effects of your treatment. And remember, you are not obliged to tell a potential employer you’ve had cancer unless it interferes with your ability to do the job.

Final Observation

People often describe a cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment as an emotional rollercoaster. Transitioning back to work can bring with it the comfort of a familiar routine as well as reduced financial pressure.

It’s important to return at your own pace. Having a written back-to-work plan can help you manage your own and other’s expectations.