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Out of the Hospital, Into the Workplace
By Tina Pavane
Returning to work after a cancer diagnosis can be an important milestone in your journey with cancer and balancing the demands of a job, alongside any ongoing treatment, may mean making some workplace adjustments.
As you plan to get back to business, there are a number of things to think about before you punch the clock. Rebecca V. Nellis, Executive Director, Cancer and Careers, says it’s a good idea to learn as much as you can about your company’s workplace policies and benefits that may apply to your situation. “As a cancer survivor, you have more control than it might feel you do, and there are tools, organizations and laws to help support you in your work goals.”
Nellis also recommends having a conversation with your healthcare team about the kind of work you do. “Knowing how your side effects and treatment schedule might affect you on the job can help you make informed decisions about any workplace accommodations you might need, such as modifying your schedule or making changes to your physical workspace.”
Some people find it’s better to ease back into work using a flexible, part-time, or a work-from-home arrangement as certain activities may end up being more time-consuming or physically challenging during this transition period. While telecommuting is not possible for certain types of jobs, there are many ways to improve your workplace wellbeing. Cancer and Careers offers these suggestions:
- Make sure your workstation is organized, decluttered and ergonomically sound. A better chair, back cushion, or soft armrests can make a big difference.
- Move the things you use regularly as close to you as possible. If you have to go down the hall often to retrieve something from the printer, see if one can be moved to your desk (or move your workstation closer to the printer).
- Schedule frequent rest periods, especially if you are doing physical work.
- If you drive to work, ask for a closer parking space if one is available.
- If you tire easily when you do a lot of typing, try speech recognition technology that allows you to voice dictate to text.
- If you normally stand, use a stool or large inflated yoga ball.
- Keep healthful snacks or energy bars on hand.
- Try to anticipate possible remarks “curious” coworkers might say so you can practice your response in advance. Some comments can unintentionally derail you. Try to redirect a cancer conversation to something work-related. Nellis calls this “the swivel.”
- Download stress-reliever apps for journaling and meditation.
- Take a walk outside to clear your head.
- Make a health-related vision board for your work area. Look for ideas on Pinterest.
- Bookmark some YouTube videos that make you laugh.
- Noise-cancelling headphones that cup over your ears are good to drown out noise and distractions. Meditative or calmuling music helps too.
- Food odors or a coworker’s cologne can sometimes trigger nausea. Ask if there is another workstation you can move to that’s away from smell.
- If you find yourself needing to use the bathroom more often, see if there is a closer workstation or ask for more frequent comfort breaks.
- Bring a range of clothing to change into in case you get too hot or too cold. A fan or space heater can also help. You may also ask if you can cover or open air conditioner or heater vents near you.
- Keep a thermos of hot or cold beverages at your desk.
Technology can also support a cancer survivor’s successful return to work.
The Mobile Accommodation Solution (MAS) app is a great tool to help manage workplace accommodation requests. It’s available for iOS devices in the Apple app store. It has a guide for conversations, action plans, and a feature to contact a Job Accommodation Network representative right within the app.
There are also many products that can be used for managing work-related tasks, which can help cope with some of the mental cloudiness that some people experience with cancer treatment, commonly referred to as chemo brain.
“Chemo brain can impact memory, concentration and general cognitive function. This might make it harder to remember details, think as quickly, or focus for long periods of time. Apps can help combat the effects of mental fog,” suggests Nellis. For example, productivity and task managing apps can be great for note-taking and organizing tasks. Video and chat conferencing software are also helpful communication tools that can be used from work or home.
Work with your manager to prioritize your projects so you are not overworked. Ask to offload tasks that are not essential to your job, to someone else. For example, if you are a teacher assigned to monitor the lunchroom perhaps someone else can cover that for you. You may also find it helpful to block out time you will need to gain focus on a particularly complicated task using your company’s shared calendar. Audio record meetings so you can review your specific tasks when you get back to your desk (be sure to ask permission beforehand). Focus on one thing at a time. And try not to do too much.
While you try to gain some normalcy after a cancer diagnosis, you may find getting back to normal requires some effort, and that your needs change as your treatment continues or concludes.
“Normal might mean something different now," says Nellis. "Each person, each diagnosis, each treatment experience and each work circumstance is wholly unique.”
Note: If your cancer or its treatment has caused an impairment or disability that limits your abilities to work as you did before, then you will need to address them with your employer in advance. Cancer survivors may be protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
For help with workplace accommodations visit the Job Accommodation Network.
For resources navigating cancer in the workplace visit Cancer and Careers.