Cancer and Work: How It Felt to Be Back

February 10, 2017

Cancer survivor discusses the emotional difficulties that came with going back to work after surviving breast cancer and skin cancer.

Were you scared like me to be finished with active cancer treatment? Did you worry about how you would function at work? Did you tell people at work about your feelings? I remember how scary it felt to suddenly be on the other side of all the treatments and attention. Who was watching for cancer now? I didn’t want to be a “downer” to my coworkers, but maybe it would have been more honest and real to share more?

Do you feel alone at work even if there are coworkers with you or nearby? Are there any fellow survivors at work who you know about? After active treatment, it feels like being in limbo. Though I was back to work and no longer hanging out so regularly in the waiting rooms with other active treatment cancer patients, I felt in no way “back to work ready” or “normal.” I was shell-shocked, worn down and worried. I do better now and I am still worried—I think I always have worry to varying degrees.

Did boss and coworkers expect you to “be normal” right away? It seemed people expected me to be normal and assumed I was normal once my hair had returned. Though wearing a wig and hats separated me from the normalcy that I craved, I wasn’t ready to jump completely back into my old life. I couldn’t. My life wasn’t and would never be the same. Now I had that awful task of creating a “new normal,” a term I really don’t like. Plus, I still felt shell-shocked and worn down.

How far after treatment did coworkers stop asking how you were doing? I still struggled with sleep. I still struggle with a lack of energy. I still struggle with worry. My post-active-treatment symptoms were a lot like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder.) PTSD symptoms are not uncommon for cancer survivors. I did the medication and therapy for this and, and fortunately, things slowly got better—at home and at work.

Once coworkers stopped asking and I was back at work, it felt like there was a shortage of people I could talk to about my cancer. People didn’t stop asking because they didn’t care. Probably they were simply happy that I looked like me again. Still, that was hard for me. Was that hard for you at first?

Getting back into the work groove took time. I don’t think the world in general gives cancer survivors enough time. I don’t think we as cancer survivors give ourselves enough time either. The more time I put between today and active cancer treatment, the better I feel.

Sadly, the window for cancer recovery isn’t measured in days and weeks, but rather in months and years. Improvement was and is gradual and spikey—certain things still upset me, especially when a medical concern that needs to be addressed pops up.

Even six years out from breast cancer and two years out from a melanoma, I still feel like a work in progress. I feel more recovered the further out I get and I still feel impacted by my cancer experiences. I bring it up with coworkers when or if it comes up, but most of the time I no longer talk about it. For the most part that is mostly good. Right?


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