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Working it out: On the job with cancer

A person facing a recent cancer diagnosis may have several questions weighing heavily on his or her mind: “Why me?” “Can I beat this?” “What will treatment be like?” “How will my family be affected?”

But after digesting the news, learning more about the disease and understanding the course treatment will take, a person may begin to consider how cancer will affect his or her practical world. A big question: “Will I be able to work?”

In fact, many people with cancer find that in addition to offering the obvious rewards (financial stability and uninterrupted health insurance), continuing to work provides a certain comfort. Among the benefits: a feeling of productivity, personal satisfaction, normalcy and well-being, not to mention the simple reassurance that participating in everyday life is still possible. Succeeding in the workday world also helps a person with cancer maintain a sense of control. And by staying on the job, he or she can enjoy the company of colleagues instead of becoming isolated.

If you are managing cancer and wondering how work fits in, you might ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I feel physically able to work?
  • Am I mentally and emotionally up to the task?
  • How will I react to my co-workers’ questions, concerns and fears? Will I mind talking about my illness?
  • Am I bothered by my altered appearance, such as hair loss?
  • Will work provide emotional relief or feel like an added strain during an already trying time?

Your answers should give you an idea of your emotional and physical readiness for either continuing to or returning to work.

One of the biggest concerns you may have if you are undergoing cancer treatment is fatigue. Discuss this with your doctor; new medications can help combat tiredness. Paying attention to nutrition, engaging in a mild fitness program and finding time for relaxation also can help restore your energy.

In addition, address these practical questions with your supervisor:

  • Can I work flexible hours? While undergoing cancer treatment, your schedule may be a little irregular. Perhaps you and your boss can come up with a flexible plan to accommodate your needs.
  • Will I be able to rest during the day? You may have periods of fatigue or even moments when you feel frustrated or depressed. At times like those, a 10-minute nap can recharge you.
  • Can I teach co-workers certain parts of my job? This will take the stress off you and your boss when you’re out.
  • Will my desire for confidentiality be respected? You may not care who knows about your illness. On the other hand, you may prefer sharing the news with just a few close colleagues. Be clear about your wishes.

If you feel up to it, remind your boss that you’re willing to take on challenging tasks. Develop your own plan for managing such assignments. Set realistic goals, delegate when necessary and keep your supervisor fully informed. If you anticipate a disruption, tell him or her sooner rather than later so alternate arrangements may be made.