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How to balance work & health during your cancer treatment

Published: 17 Oct 2017

Being diagnosed with cancer doesn’t just affect your health; it disrupts your life. Treatments like chemotherapy can be time consuming and cause physical side effects, which make it difficult to maintain your usual daily routines.

One aspect of cancer sufferers’ lives that is most affected, and can cause a great deal of stress and anxiety, is work. 

Being diagnosed with a serious illness not only affects your ability to work, but also the working patterns of those around you. Your partner may need to take time off to care for you during treatment, while colleagues may have to carry out certain tasks if you are unable to maintain your usual responsibilities. 

So, how do you balance work and health while undergoing chemotherapy treatment, to look after yourself whilst still supporting those around you? Here are some tips: 

Listen to your body 

There is no set rule for how you should feel about your career during chemotherapy. Some people give up work completely while undergoing treatment; others carry on working full-time, because they like the sense of structure it brings to their lives. 

Some continue to work, but reduce their hours. It very much depends on who you are, the career you’ve built, and other factors relating to your job. 

The most important thing is to listen to your body, and make a judgement call based on how you are feeling. You may need or wish to change your mind and adjust your working arrangement as you go through treatment. 

Know your rights

Many companies have a policy in place for workers affected by serious illness, so it is a good idea to check your contract or company handbook first of all. You may also want to arrange an initial meeting with HR to discuss any procedures already in place for staff. 

Be honest with your boss 

Once you’re clear on company protocol, set up a private meeting with your boss to tell them about your diagnosis, and how your treatment plan may affect your ability to work. 

Make sure they are aware of when you will be out of the office at appointments, or for a recovery period after chemo, so they can schedule the appropriate cover if needed.

If you’re worried about breaking the news to your boss, you may find our recent blog on how to tell your colleagues you have cancer helpful. 

Give yourself time to rest and recover

Many people consider how taking time off for treatment will impact their career, however do not factor in appropriate time to recover between bouts of chemotherapy.  Although there are many things you can do to prepare for chemo in advance, you often won’t realize the full impact it has on your health until after your first treatment.

With this in mind, consider that it might not just be treatment days you may need to take off work. The side effects of chemo can slow you down, so you may want to give yourself some time afterwards to rest and fully recover before resuming your normal routine.

In terms of how long you take off, think about the type of work you do and how chemotherapy will affect your ability to carry out that job. If it’s a physical role, you may feel too tired to keep up your usual pace; if it’s an office-based role, many cancer sufferers complain about ‘chemo brain’, or clouded thinking and memory issues, which can impact their ability to carry out certain tasks. 

Either way, you might need to take a step back from some responsibilities in the short-term, for the safety of yourself and others. 

Find a flexible solution 

Although many of us are guilty of putting our work first, the most important thing when undergoing cancer treatment is to protect your mental and physical wellbeing. 

Often the best way to ensure this is to take a more flexible approach to work – being kept informed with what is going on at work and getting involved when you can, while still taking time to recover fully during treatment periods. 

For example, you might want to discuss scaling back to part-time work during chemo. This will give you the structure of getting up and doing your job, without the pressure of maintaining a full-on pace all the time.

Another option is to talk to your boss about a flexible working from home policy, for days when you want to do some work but feel too tired or weak to come into the office.

Keep in regular touch with your company and be honest about how the arrangement is working. There may be times where you have to pull back on work as your treatment changes or progresses, but equally there may be other times when you’re well enough to take on a bigger workload than anticipated.

Whatever happens, do not stress about work; this is only a temporary setback, and putting your health first will help you recover quicker and pick up your career where you left off.