Talk your way back to work

Screening campaigns, early diagnosis and efficient treatments have been improving breast cancer survival rates over the years,1 bringing hopes of remission for newly diagnosed patients. More and more women are therefore returning to work, which may help them regain a sense of normality, self-value, social comfort and not to mention better financial security.2-4

Returning to work can represent a beacon of light for women undergoing treatments.2 Some women may even crave returning to work so much so that they idealise the situation only to be met with a completely different reality once back at work. You can face unexpected difficulties such as fatigue, cognitive fluctuation, pain, emotional adjustment issues and misunderstandings with your boss and/or coworkers.2

In general, in order to facilitate work readiness and allow a gradual return to a sustainable and suitable work, it is essential to establish open communication with yourself and with your employer about your feelings and needs.

Talk to your body, listen to your doctor

Be considerate and patient with yourself. You may easily get tired and have trouble focusing due to the side effects of treatments.2,3

Therefore, there lies the risk of not listening to what your body is telling you, developing feelings of frustration because you cannot satisfy your own expectations and ending up exhausted. You should keep in mind that going back to your “normal work life” may take time and it can vary from one person to another.

The decision to return to work is a choice of yours, however, make sure your doctor or healthcare provider gave you his or her approval for it.

Talk to your boss and your colleagues

Returning to work means reengaging with your employer, coworkers and work environment. In order to have a work environment that best suits your needs and current capabilities, it is important to frequently talk to your manager throughout your recovery phase.4

Options can be considered with your employer to gradually return to work, such as flex-time (in order to decrease working hours), job sharing (to decrease the workload by sharing or splitting tasks with another colleague), or working from home.3,4

Talking with your colleagues is also a good way to preserve the relationship with your work environment and to avoid secluding yourself from your team. You can also ask a close colleague to take on the responsibility of announcing your illness to your coworkers. Your return will be easier as they will be less anxious about your condition and kept up-to-date about your current recovery.

How open you wish to be about your illness is a personal decision. Planning what you’ll say about your cancer can help correct any wrong ideas about your working capabilities, can help determine how to work together moving forward and may smoothen your relationships with your coworkers.3,4

Talk to people that can support you

The success of your return to work cannot be measured right at the moment of the return itself but over a period of time. You may require personalised support and guidance to allow a smooth transition, and this can be provided by trained professionals,2 such as dedicated healthcare professionals, some non-profit associations or other services such as life insurance providers.

They can be helpful in knowing your legal rights to unpaid leave, working part-time, working from home, etc.

Below is a handful of organisations where you may find some more useful information.

The National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc.

European Cancer Patient Coalition

Breast cancer support

Breast Cancer Network Australia


  1. World Cancer Research Fund, Breast Cancer Survivor report 2014, revised 2018.
  2. Sheppard D. M., et al. BMJ Open 2019;9:e032505.
  3. [Last accessed: December 26, 2019]
  4. [Last accessed: December 26, 2019]