Research shows approximately 65% of people who have had a cancer journey return to work. Some return with few barriers, others return with struggles. Research has also found there are factors that contribute to a successful return to work, and factors that can lead to a negative return. Factors that contribute to a more successful return include:

  • A supportive work environment
  • Discretion over work hours and job duties
  • Being able to mobilize social support both at work and outside of work
  • Number of months since treatment. There is an optimum time to return to work – not too soon, and not too long from being away from work.

Factors that might inhibit a successful return include:

  • A non-supportive work environment
  • A physically more demanding job
  • Age (the older employees struggle more than younger employees)
  • Changing attitudes toward work

Many Wellspring members experience struggles with returning to work. Wellspring recently held three consultation sessions with members to learn more about the challenges they experienced. Virtually every person attending the consultations reported the biggest barrier was fatigue. For some, the fatigue was greatest when they first returned to work. Others reported that even after being back at work for a couple of years they still experienced ongoing fatigue.

The other major symptom reported by about 70% was brain fog. So many people noted cognitive issues, and the associated stress and anxiety as a result of performance barriers. Many members had developed techniques to try and manage their cognitive gaps – writing everything down, memory prompts, having colleagues take extensive notes in meetings, making small jokes about memory gaps, or talking openly with peers and supervisors about their cognitive struggles.

It was telling when one woman recounted her experiences with both fatigue and brain fog. She had high hopes that both would disappear soon after treatment ended, and was saddened and discouraged when both symptoms persisted more than two years after her treatment. As she said, “I wish I had known how long they would last so I could cope better”.

There were many other struggles that people experienced too. Some had colleagues and supervisors who weren’t supportive of their challenges. Others needed a variety of accommodations in order to keep up. Some shifted jobs or sought out new careers to try and reduce stress and find happiness. There were other smaller concerns – what are the legal rights of an employee, how to stay energized through the day by making proper food choices, how to incorporate exercise to increase stamina.

We also heard many positive experiences of people who were back at work. Feeling valuable and contributing again was important. Having a regular routine and being back with friends was important along with earning more money. Some had colleagues and managers who were so helpful and accommodating during the period of transitioning back to work that it made the process all that more manageable.

As more and more cancer patients return to work, it is important to recognize the challenges these employees encounter. For the participants at the consultation, just being in a room with other people who were in a similar situation, discussing their challenges was helpful and comforting to know they weren’t alone in this journey.

Written by: Pamela Bowes, Wellspring Program Manager and developer of the ‘Return to Work’ Program
Wellspring will be offering a 3-part series specifically directed at cancer patients who are back at work, dealing with the demands of the job. Being back at work after cancer can bring challenges. Many people struggle with cognitive issues and fatigue. Eating well throughout the day to keep up energy and avoiding the unhealthy take out lunches can be hard. As well there are often legal questions – what are the responsibilities of an employer to accommodate time away from work or job performance problems.

Each session will include a guest presentation on a specific topic, plus time for discussion with other members and questions with the speaker. Members who are back at work can come to any or all sessions in the series. A light supper will be served.

To register for a session or the series, please contact Wellspring Downtown at 416-961-1928.