Alberta Cancer Foundation

Expert Advice on Returning to Work After Cancer Treatment

Illustration by Jennifer Madole


Once cancer treatment is complete, the natural next step for many patients is to consider a return to work. As overwhelming as it can seem, there are ways to help make re-entering the workforce a little easier. Here, Dr. Guy Pelletier, a psychosocial oncologist at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, shares some tips.

What should a person recovering from cancer consider before they return to work?

It’s very important to consider a progressive return to work as opposed to returning full-time right off. If you have an insurance plan that provides you with short-term/long-term disability, typically those plans also offer a progressive return to work, in which the insurance company continues to pay you, and your employer pays you for the time you go back to work. It’s easy to neglect the extent of the impact of treatment on the body, and sometimes the psychological impact as well. [It’s] preferable to return when you’re better rested, when you’ve had a chance to get back to exercising and a proper diet.

What practical things can be done to make returning to work less stressful?

Preparation matters. Meet with your administrator or boss and allow them to see that you’re in good shape and that you’re back on track. Spending a bit of time in your place of work before you return — maybe sitting at your desk — can also allow you to reduce your anxiety when you start on your first day. Realize that going back to work is a challenge, but it’s not as if you don’t know what your work is about, even if you might have been away.

What’s a good approach for talking to co-workers who are curious about a person’s cancer treatment?

What I’ve often recommended to people is that they have a good sense of their boundaries and what they want to say. Asking about a person’s treatment is not just curiosity for many co-workers, it’s also the wish to catch up, to truly understand and, possibly, to care a bit for that person. So, it’s a matter of telling co-workers what you think is best to tell them, in a summary kind of way. Prepare
a short, 30-second script, and if people start asking more questions, it becomes optional whether you tell them more. At the end of the day, you are the one who controls that information.

How can someone returning to work best ask for support?

Knowing what you need and where you can obtain the support you need are important. If you have a better sense of what your problems are, you’ll have a better sense of who to ask. If you have difficulties sorting these things out, [the psychosocial program is] happy to help. I’ve had many people say to me, “I don’t know what I need,” and that’s perfectly understandable. Support groups can also be helpful; there is quite a wide range of services out there that can help people.