When U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Irve Le Moyne finished his cancer treatment at Houston’s MD Anderson Hospital, he rang a brass that he had installed on the way out of the oncology department. He also wrote this poem that hangs near the bell:
Ring this bell
Three times well
Its toll to clearly say
My treatment’s done
This course is run
And I am on my way!
— Irve Le Moyne
Ringing the bell to signify that treatment is over is practiced in hospitals and cancer centers all over the country. It is an emotional moment, filled with great joy, relief and not a small amount of trepidation. Treatment may be over, but, now what? The goal has been to beat the monster and regain the life that has been on hold for months, if not longer. Is that possible? Where do you start?
A major challenge looming on the near horizon is the decision about the right time to go back to work. The vast majority of breast cancer survivors are able to return to their jobs with very little problem. Most of us tell ourselves that work is a necessary evil and that we live for the weekend, but the truth is that our jobs are an important part of our lives, and returning to work is a positive stage of recovery. It will immediately give you a sense of normality and of being, once again, more in control of your life, something that has been missing since that day you were diagnosed.
There is a flip side, however. Not everyone experiences the same treatment for breast cancer, but whether yours included chemotherapy, radiation, surgery or all of the above, it has taken a major toll, physically, mentally and emotionally. You may be experiencing side effects, like hair loss or chemo brain, which is a form of cognitive impairment that affects thinking and memory and makes it hard to focus. In almost everyone, energy levels are usually affected to some degree.
Manage Expectations – Yours and Everyone Else’s
The number one, most important thing that you can do to make transitioning back to work a positive experience is to anticipate and manage expectations. This includes your expectations, as well as those of your boss, co-workers, friends and family.
According to Mary McCabe, RN, director of the Cancer Survivorship program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, “Everyone’s ready for treatment to be over, not just you, and although they’ve been supportive, your friends and family may be expecting you to spring back right away. It’s an education process. They need to understand that when the therapy stops, that doesn’t mean that the effects of the therapy stop immediately.”
Even though you would no doubt prefer to simply dive back in at the same level as when you left, it will be up to you to make sure that everyone understands treatment may be over but it’s going to take some time for you to be back to your old self. Transitioning means just that; gradually reclaiming the long hours, extra duties and activities.
Expect varied reactions from your co-workers. Some will want to throw a party and others may be uncomfortable for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with you. Allow them their reactions and keep in mind that what you share or choose not to share is totally up to you.
There will be other decisions to make about returning to work. You will need to honestly assess your stamina and whether you can return full time or should inquire about gradually increasing hours. There might even be the possibility of doing some work from home. Employers are not required to lower standards to accommodate an employee but they do have to offer reasonable accommodations like restructuring, offering part-time or modified work schedules and certain others that might make life a little easier for now.
Above all else, never lose sight of the fact that, while returning to work is a goal, your priority is your return to health.