WORK AND CANCER: THE STORIES THE NEWSPAPERS DON’T COVER

I’m sure you will have noticed how many stories there are in the press these days about cancer. Sometimes they are about celebrities, sometimes they are about ordinary people, coping with and overcoming cancer and sometimes not. These are always inspiring stories of human resilience and emotional strength in the face of gruelling treatment and often terrible uncertainty about outcomes. 

There are other stories too about new wonder drugs, or new ways of possibly preventing cancer through embracing a new lifestyle, for example, doing more exercise, practising mindfulness or eating ‘superfoods’.  Some of this is good advice and some of it is totally unproven. 

But what struck me recently was how very few stories there are about the long 'journey' back to normal that most cancer survivors face when they return to work. Maybe this is because it's boring; it's not 'newsworthy'? The result is that cancer survivors and their employers often have no idea what it's going to be like and have totally false expectations about what is a ‘normal’ return to work. Line managers comment “Shouldn’t she be working full time by now? Maybe she isn’t up to the job any longer?” Employees end up saying “I should be feeling better by now, maybe I never will?”

So a lack of hard information and real life stories about returning to work, can causeproblems both for employers and employees. Certainly most of the people I coach have no idea what lies ahead once treatment is over. In my experience, both employers and those recovering from cancer tend to assume that each week of a phased return to work will be better than the last one and that after 6 to 8 weeks they will be almost back to normal. The fact is, however, that although a few people do experience this relatively easy ‘return journey’, the vast majority don’t. 

So if you are recovering from cancer what should you do? If you are an employer how should you manage someone with cancer?  A few recommendations and observations:

Employees

  1. Be well informed and beware of making assumptions about your recovery or setting yourself unrealistic goals. Get hold of a MacMillan toolkit – they have really useful booklets for employers, employees and carers – with lots of practical advice about how to manage work and cancer and they are free! You can order a hard copy or download a pdf of the relevant booklet.
  2. Contact the Cancer Coaching Community about accessing support via your organisation or individually. Coaching support is available for those with cancer and all those affected by it. They will support you to make a successful return to work
  3. Make sure you have a regular discussion about work and cancer with your manager during treatment, at the point of returning to work and afterwards for as long as you need to.
  4. Be prepared to ask for reasonable adjustments to support your return to work and keep them in place for as long as you need to. Your doctor/s, or coach or occupational health advisor (if you have one) can advise you further about this. 
  5. Last but not least, remember that cancer is covered by the Equality Act. If you are a cancer survivor you are covered for the rest of your life. Your employment is protected in many ways and you are entitled to reasonable adjustments to support your successful return to work.

Employers

  1. Be well informed. Get hold of a MacMillan toolkit – they have really useful booklets for employers, employees and carers – with lots of practical advice about how to manage work and cancer and they are free! You can order a hard copy or download a pdf of the relevant booklet.
  2. Contact the Cancer Coaching Community (CCC) about accessing support via your organisation both for you and your employee.
  3. You can also access training and consultancy advice via the CCC about managing work and cancer
  4. Ensure there are are regular reviews with employees recovering from cancer for up to a year after a phased return. This is to ensure the manager/HR remains well informed about an employee’s progress and can provide further support if needed
  5. And finally, remember that someone diagnosed with cancer is covered by the Equality Act and entitled to reasonable adjustments for as long as they are employed. So you’ll need to be prepared to make reasonable changes to support them. 


Returning to work is not a sprint, it’s more like a marathon and sometimes there need to be pauses along the way to draw breath.  It’s not a seamless progression but a ‘long and winding’ road – very like how life is in practice!

In summary, it takes time, patience, imagination and creativity but often that’s all to help someone return successfully to work after cancer. The true story about working with cancer may not grab the headlines but that doesn’t make it any less compelling. 

Barbara Wilson, Cancer Survivor, Life Coach & Trainer and Co-founder of Working with Cancer, www.workingwithcancer.co.uk 

Barbara Wilson