Working through a cancer diagnosis – tips for the survivor in the workplace

It’s not always easy, but a cancer education expert and survivor offer ways to make it through the workday despite having the disease.

A person is considered a cancer survivor from the minute they are diagnosed with the disease. Tips from experts at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) can help survivors continue pre-diagnosis daily routines that may include working; one such expert, a cancer survivor herself, experienced firsthand the benefits and challenges of survivorship in the workplace.

nycu_cancer_at_work_sBefore heading back to the office, a patient and their doctor must consider the type of treatment, stage of the cancer, overall health and the kind of work, according to the American Cancer Society. Teri Hoenemeyer, director of education and supportive services at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center, said 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,” Hoenemeyer explained. “If they are suffering from fatigue or have a special needs, employers will need to consider making reasonable accommodations.”

Five years ago, Mary Gibson, R.N., associate vice president of Physician Services and UAB Connect for the UAB Health System, was diagnosed with Stage II A invasive ductal carcinoma. Gibson underwent chemotherapy, a lumpectomy and radiation; and she went to work through it all at UAB.

“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,” Gibson explained.

While Gibson describes the work and cancer combination as exhausting, she said it can be done and offered tips for others:

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

    Hoenemeyer said once back in the workplace following a diagnosis, survivors must take extra special care of themselves.

    “Extra rest, a healthy diet, physical activity and low stress are all important factors to the survivor at work,” Hoenemeyer said. “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 explained.

    Gibson noted that her co-workers were a fabulous support system – offering notes of encouragement, a joke and even a smile.

    “Cancer absolutely changes your life, but I can truly say I gained much more than I could ever have imagined following my diagnosis,” Gibson said. “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.”