Work and breast cancer: Making it easier for you

Work plays a role in establishing people’s identity.1 As a cancer survivor, carrying on working may be important for you, even during treatment. You may feel like work is a part of who you are, a source of pride or of belonging to society. It may give you a reason to get up in the morning and structure your day. Or perhaps it helps you cope with the emotional burden of the disease.2 

However, you may be apprehensive about certain difficulties at work related to your illness. “Will I be able to benefit from adjustments at work?”, “Will I be as efficient as others?”, “Will I be discriminated against?”, are questions you may be asking yourself. Here are some tips to help you address them. 

Get support

As a breast cancer survivor, you are protected while at work. Indeed, most countries have equality acts that make it illegal to discriminate against you because of your illness.3-7 In addition to the fact that you cannot be dismissed because of your illness, you have the right to ask your employer for reasonable adjustments.8 Depending on the situation and the resources of the company, these adjustments could include practical modifications (such as flexible working hours, extra breaks, or an adapted workstation, etc.) and job-related modifications (such as adjusting annual goals and removing tiresome or stressful tasks).8 It is best for both you and your employer to work together, don’t hesitate to take your time considering what will be of most value to you! 

If you want to know more about what your workplace can do for you but are unsure of which questions to ask to your employer or human resources manager, here are useful ones to start with9: 

  • What policies does my employer have that apply to my situation, and where can I find them?   
  • If I am unable to work, am I eligible for statutory or company sick pay?  
  • Could we agree on what to tell people at work about the cancer and how it will affect my work?   

However, telling your employer and colleagues about your condition can be stressful. To help you prepare for these discussions, have you considered seeking advice from your oncologist or your company’s occupational physician? Indeed, he or she could reassure you and provide you with brochures you can rely on to help you organize your thoughts and find the right words without being overwhelmed. 

Take care of yourself

Balancing medical appointments with work may take up a lot of mental space, and you may find it stressful to work during your treatment. If you feel the need to ease your stress, how about personalising your workspace? Plants, photos of loved ones, or inspirational quotes may help you feel more comfortable. You may also appreciate stress-reduction techniques such as breathing exercises and meditation or decide to disconnect from the world for a short moment by listening to calming music or podcasts.10 

And if you feel pressure to perform as well as you did before or compare yourself to your colleagues, remember you are going through a lot. You are a woman of exemplary strength and courage, so if your work goals are temporarily not perfectly met, well… so be it. Setting professional boundaries is crucial to maintain a healthy work environment and you may find it difficult to decline certain types of requests. If so, don’t hesitate to practice saying “no” in a professional manner11, for instance by reformulating the following sentence: “I appreciate that you thought of me for this project but I’m a bit swamped this week, and am concerned about my ability to get this back to you in a timely manner.” 

The cognitive effects of chemotherapy may also be a source of stress. If you suffer from memory loss or lack of concentration (also known as “chemobrain” adverse events), organisation and healthy habits are key to remain effective at work12: allocating a specific place for each object, making checklists of daily reminders, and respecting your sleep needs are solutions you can put in place. 

 In any case, always consult your physician for medical advice. 

Manage conversations

Deciding to have “the talk” with your co-workers is a personal decision, and how much you choose to share is entirely up to you.13 Some may react in unexpected ways though, and you may want to anticipate these reactions. 

Remember that friendship does not entitle anyone to full disclosure, you are allowed to have boundaries. Learning your “trigger” points could help you preparing for uncomfortable questions.14 To do so, make a list of the topics you do not wish to talk about and plan responses to switch to another subject or end the conversation. A prepared sentence such as “I appreciate you taking an interest, but I don’t feel very comfortable talking about it” might be useful to quickly remove yourself from unpleasant situations. And if people tell you to “cheer up”, remember that you are not living to please them and that you have the right not to smile all day long. 

In the unlikely event that you are confronted with unpleasant or even hurtful comments, you may wish to respond immediately without being left stunned. Learning a couple of responses to address microaggressions15 might therefore be useful. Sentences such as “Could you say more about what you mean by that?” or “Come on, you’re too smart to say something so ignorant/offensive.” could help you keep your head up while highlighting the absurdity of the comments made to you. Fortunately, this type of situation is extremely rare as the vast majority of women with breast cancer do not experience any discrimination at work, and many even find their employer’s and colleagues’ responses helpful.16, 17 

Working while on breast cancer treatment can be tough and unpredictable, and there is no shame in taking some time off. If you decide to carry on working though, remember you are not alone and that solutions exist to help you continue to have a fulfilling professional life. 

The information provided on this website is not intended to replace professional advice. Please always consult a healthcare professional if you require healthcare advice.


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