Meeting your work needs while living with cancer can be a challenging balancing act. Everybody has different needs, and different requirements around work. You may want to give up work entirely to focus on your recovery. Or you may find that continuing to work, or returning to work after a cancer treatment gives you focus, routine, and a welcome aspect of normalcy. You may need to keep working to ensure financial security.
Whatever your needs, it can be helpful to think about ways that you can balance your work life with the changes that are happening in your personal life. We've put together 10 tips to think about when considering how to balance cancer and work.
10 Tips for Balancing Cancer and Work
Living with cancer can be physically and emotionally demanding, and can take up an enormous amount of your time. You may find that your work commitments will need to temporarily or permanently change while you focus on your recovery. These tips for working while living with cancer can help you figure the best way for you to balance personal and professional obligations.
1. Know Your Rights
It may seem like the last thing on your mind, but if you have a cancer diagnosis and you are in work, it can be helpful in the long run to make sure you know your entitlements and rights in relation to your job.
If you are an employee, reviewing your existing employment agreements can be a good place to start. Talking with in-house senior support or an external human resources (HR) specialist can help you understand your position, and find out any help you may be entitled to.
Numerous federal laws exist to help protect people with cancer in the workplace, and it could be worth finding out more about these too.1
For example, The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that protects employees who need to take time off work because of a serious health condition, such as cancer. Under the FMLA, an employee's job and work-sponsored health insurance coverage are protected during leave.
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) can also protect cancer patients and survivors from discrimination in the office and workplace and ensure access to reasonable accommodations. The majority of states also have similar laws that range in the level of protection they provide employees.
2. Talk to Your Doctor
Talking with your physician and healthcare team can help you find out what to expect, and plan for any changes that you might need to make around work.
Side-effects and fatigue can be a common part of receiving treatment for cancer, and your physician can help you learn how to manage any potential issues and improve your day-to- day quality of life. Your physician may also be able to prescribe you medication or other therapies to help you keep working.
Getting as much information about your condition and treatments can also help you plan ahead when considering the tasks that you need to undertake, and if you may need extra help or support around them. Chemotherapy can sometimes cause numbness and tingling in the hands and feet, for example, which may affect your ability to write. You might find it helpful to use speech recognition software if this is the case.2
3. Decide How Much You Want to Share with Coworkers
You may decide that you do not want to share any health information with your employers and coworkers at all, and that is ok. You do not have to, unless you are asking for help under certain laws.3
Cancer is a personal journey and everybody feels differently about it. Some people may want to tell good friends and trusted people at work, while others prefer to keep it a private matter.
It's especially common for those with a cancer diagnosis to feel lonely or isolated. It can be easy to feel like you may be the only one out there trying to balance work and cancer. If you need to talk through these feelings, it can be helpful to find a support group to talk with other people who may be experiencing a similar situation, or access counseling or mental health support in other ways. Your healthcare team will be able to help you with options.
4. Consider Telling Your Boss
It can be an uncomfortable conversation to have, but it can help to talk with your managers about your cancer diagnosis at some point. You may need to have ongoing conversations with line managers, supervisors, or anyone else you may directly report to. Bringing them on board at an early stage can help them to meet your needs.
It's typically best to be open and up front about what you think you will need. Including how your treatment and recovery plan may affect your work schedule. If you have any recurring appointments or times you know you will need off work, discussing this as early as possible and getting a plan in place can help take the pressure off you at a later date. You can talk about which tasks you think you can manage and how coworkers may cover your work.
You might not know what changes you will need at work right now, and that is also ok. It can still be helpful to let others know this- that you may well need significant changes, but you don’t yet know what that will look like.
5. Look for Flexibility
Creating a more flexible approach to work and responsibilities can be very important as you take time to manage your health. It’s likely you will need to make enough time for important appointments and rest. You may have to step back from certain roles and responsibilities, and look where you can delegate tasks.
You might want to consider how you work, and see if any changes can be made that might help you. You may want or need to take short- or long-term sabbaticals to focus on recovery.
Or if you are remaining at work, think about if there are any other changes you could make. Can you undertake more work at home for example, or would you prefer to come in to socialize and feel connected with colleagues? Would a change in your pattern of work be helpful? For example, some employees may find working earlier in the day or later in the evening allows them to balance work and medical appointments more easily.
6. Set Boundaries Where You Can
Setting and maintaining personal and professional boundaries can be hard to do, especially if you are feeling depleted, but it can also be an essential part of maintaining your wellbeing and balance during this challenging time. Learning when to say ‘No’ can be one of the most important ways you can look after yourself, and protect your valuable energy levels.
It can sometimes help to think beforehand about what aspects of work you may need to set boundaries around. What are your absolute red lines and cannot do? What will you need to decide on closer to the time? It’s always ok to ask for more time to think about what you need in any situation.
While proactively planning and setting boundaries can be helpful, it's also important to understand that situations can change. Some days, you may feel you need more privacy or are not up to a particular task, for example. It's perfectly reasonable for you to discuss this with your boss when it happens, and come to the best agreement you can at that time.
7. Identify Stressors at Work
Living with cancer can be challenging enough without the added work stress that this may cause. It can be helpful to consider what aspects of your professional life you might find stressful, and think about ways that could potentially help to manage them.
For some workers, breaking down larger projects into smaller and more manageable tasks can help reduce stress and lead to a more actionable and approachable plan, for example. Or looking for areas where other people can share the load can also be useful.
You might even want to investigate if there are any mechanisms or tools that you can use to help you manage stress and improve your resilience. Introducing activities such as exercise, socialization, new support groups, complementary therapies such as massage, and meditation can help you to relax while receiving cancer treatment.
8. Try to Let go of Expectations
Try to let go of your own and others’ expectations around achievement at work. Be prepared to accept that sometimes you might not be able to usually do as much, to such a high standard, as you usually can. Practicing staying aware of your energy levels and limits at any given time can help.
It can be normal to want to stay as productive and effective as possible, especially if you like to do a good job and your work is important to you. But it is also essential that you take care of your wellbeing, and strive for balance between your work life and the other aspects of your life.4 This might mean accepting lower standards for your work than you usually would. Sometimes just getting the bare minimum done is more than enough.
9. Listen to Your Body
Learn to listen to your body; it will tell you what you need to manage your wellbeing. For example, rest is important for cancer recovery, and your rest needs may change over time, as you move through diagnosis, emotional upheaval, and treatment. Adequate rest can help maintain your energy levels, your mood, and your resilience. Trouble sleeping can be common for patients receiving cancer treatment, and you may need to take these changes into account when planning any work commitments.
Now more than ever is it important to maintain a healthy diet. Talking with your physician can help you determine what a healthy diet and weight range might be for you. You might want to look at how you normally eat at work, and think about if your routines still work for you right now. Do you normally skip lunch, for example, or are you required to eat out with clients? Proactively thinking about how you may need to manage these situations can help lessen stress and worry.
Some people find it helpful to keep a diary of how they are feeling as they progress through treatment and recovery. Doing this could help you better predict when you might need to make changes to usual routines and schedules.2
10. Keep on Prioritizing your own Needs
While work is important, your health is more important. Moving through cancer diagnosis, treatment, and recovery can be tough enough as it is, and the addition of work responsibilities on top of this can add to the challenge of keeping balance in your life.
It's essential to pay close attention to your personal needs on a day-to-day basis. Keep a close eye on how things are going for you. It can be useful to occasionally step back and consider if you feel you have a good overall balance between gaining the potential benefits from work- such as social interaction, sense of fulfilment, and financial needs while also having enough time for you and your recovery.
If something isn’t quite right, don’t be afraid to change it.
If you found this post useful, we invite you to browse our blog for more articles written for cancer patients.
- https://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/young-adults-and-teenagers/school- and-work-during-cancer/going-work-during-and-after-cancer