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Working through Cancer


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Returning to the workplace after cancer can be both rewarding and challenging. Here, experts at the University of Alabama at Birmingham offer tips to help cancer survivors make a smooth transition as they return to work.

Before heading back to the office, cancer survivors and their doctors must consider their type of treatment, stage of cancer, overall health, and kind of work. Teri Hoenemeyer, director of edu­cation and supportive services at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center, says employers are required to support a survivor’s decision.

“Cancer is classified as a disability, and working survivors have protections and rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, so employers will need to provide time for doctor’s appointments and treatments that may go above and beyond Family Medical Leave,” Teri elaborates. “If they are suffering from fatigue or have special needs, employers will need to consider making reasonable accommodations.”

"Work can be positive in that it provides social support and access to resources and people that can help get you through the disease."

Five years ago, Mary Gibson, RN, associate vice president of Physician Services and UAB Connect for the UAB Health System, was diagnosed with stage IIA invasive ductal carci­noma. Mary underwent chemotherapy, a lumpectomy, and radiation; and she continued to work at UAB through it all.

“Cancer is of course your primary focus when you are going through it, but doing my job provided me that sense of normalcy – something to think about besides all of the treatments,” Mary explains.

While Mary says that working through cancer can be exhausting, she says it can be done. Mary offers these tips for fellow survivors:

  • Take it all in one bit at a time – one day, one treatment, one surgery, one radiation session.
  • Though it can be difficult, stay positive.
  • Understand that cancer may take away your hair, your energy, and control of your schedule, but it can give back many new things.

“Extra rest, a healthy diet, physical activity, and low stress are all important factors to the survivor at work,” Teri adds. “Take time out of the day to do something that focuses on managing stress and anxiety; it could be medita­tion, sitting still with some music, or taking a walk.

“Working through cancer, naturally you will have additional stress, but work can be positive in that it provides social support and access to resources and people that can help get you through the disease,” she explains.

Mary notes that her coworkers were a fabulous support system, offering notes of encouragement, a few jokes, and even some smiles.

“Cancer absolutely changes your life, but I can truly say I gained much more than I could ever have imagined following my diagnosis,” Mary says. “It opened a world with new friends and love; a world with laughter and ‘good’ tears; a world of ‘yes, I really do appre­ciate today’ and ‘oh, look, the sky is so blue’; and a new world of thankfulness for new opportunities.”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2013.