Saturday, 10 February 2018

Weekly Discussion Summary ~ Back to Work 2

“Whether we work to live or live to work, our occupation often contributes hugely to our identity.”

This week we shared our experiences of managing work after a breast cancer diagnosis. For some, work continued during treatment, with short periods of time off for surgery and chemotherapy. Others described taking a year or more off work, or having several long absences following various treatments, recurrences or complications.

Whether we work to live or live to work, our occupation often contributes hugely to our identity. Many of us shared the importance of our career to us and those of us who could work described how much being able to work helped us - by creating a sense of normality and helping us not to feel that we were defined by our cancer diagnosis. Those of us with positive experiences shared that supportive managers, kind colleagues, realistic phased returns and reasonable adjustments had made a huge difference to our confidence and self-esteem. For others, returning to work had felt like a trauma in itself, with a significant lack of support and empathy being reported in the workplace. A very few of us described the devastating experience of feeling forced to leave our jobs.

The focus of our discussion was coping with returning to work. This felt like both a milestone on the road to recovery as well as a huge challenge which forced us to face the impact of our treatment on us. We love work and desperately want to be the same employee that we were before our diagnosis.

How, we asked ourselves, can an employer who sees a formerly strong, able female employee understand how we may be changed, physically and emotionally? We look good, we’ve been off (sick leave, we discovered can be perceived as a holiday by some colleagues!). We’re “back” and we look amazing. So let’s get on with it, right?


We might be in pain. We have trouble sleeping. Sometimes we are exhausted. We experience the after-effects from treatment such as reduced cognitive faculties, early menopause and we are still dealing with the psychological impact of a breast cancer diagnosis. Many of us have hot flushes and aching joints due to hormonal treatment or early menopause.

Do we complain?


We smile and even though we appear to be coping in the workplace, we go home exhausted every evening, and still we hold it together for our partners or family.

What we need is supportive adjustments such as a smaller workload, staggered start-times, reduced hours, time off for hospital appointments and regular breaks. We need helpful colleagues not snide remarks about shirking. We hope, if you are a line manager or colleague of someone with a breast cancer diagnosis reading this, that you understand the legal and moral obligation on you to support us, and how much we have to offer given the right assistance. We've been to hell and back, and if we ask for time off for an appointment then this is key to our well-being. We know how precious time is, and we aren't going to waste it. We will give you our best, every minute of every day, as we want our time to count.

For those of us who have had to change careers, reduce our hours or give up work, it is a huge decision that isn't taken lightly. Following a breast cancer diagnosis, with the battering our bodies take and the psychological toll stripping us of our former energy and capability, we may become depressed and our self-confidence plummets. We are fragile and vulnerable. For some, the decision to find a less stressful job or to give up work (for those lucky enough to be in a financial position that allows this) is triggered by a change in priorities. Having faced serious illness, we find we no longer want to spend our days working flat out. For others, it's going back to work that helps us feel normal again, that gives us a sense of purpose and satisfaction, and fills our days with productive activity, helping us not to dwell on our thoughts about our cancer.

For women with secondary breast cancer and who need continuous treatment, the only option may be to stop work as sustaining productivity levels commensurate with their position may not be possible. For these women, priorities often centre around spending time with family and friends. While giving up work may be a relief, there is still loss – the loss of career and routines; it can also be very hard to give up who they were as professional and working women and there is, of course, often significant financial implications.

There is often a conflict for many of us returning to work, particularly those of us who are young, ambitious women and who are on a career path. How do we balance the desire to succeed, to climb the promotion ladder, with wanting to see more of our families, to spend more time doing things we enjoy, to take it easy?

There are, we discovered, no easy answers. We need to try and adapt and adjust, to cope with the feelings of being lost and bewildered, as if we don't quite belong. A phased return to work can be really helpful, with the intervention of occupational health professionals as appropriate. Macmillan also provide objective advice and guidance to women who need it.

If you are a woman living in the UK with a diagnosis of breast cancer and you would like to join our private group, please contact is by facebook message


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