Most of us have built up a carefully constructed work persona and we work hard at protecting that persona by keeping a fairly strict line of demarcation between our personal and professional lives.
Returning to work after a lengthy absence of nine months following treatment for breast cancer was an unsettling time for me, as those demarcation lines became blurred. Although few people said anything to my face, I nevertheless felt somewhat stigmatized as "that girl who had cancer". In fact few people said anything at all; they just didn't know how to react. Should they acknowledge it or ignore it?
Common thoughts on returning to work after a chronic illness include wondering if co-workers will treat you differently; will you be stigmatized; will it affect your promotional opportunities? For those who are used to identifying themselves closely with their jobs, a prolonged absence from work can be very difficult.
While many people welcome a return to work as a return to normality, pay-checks, company and a sense of identity, I struggled when the time came for me to return. My heart told me it was time for a change of career, to live a life more aligned with the lessons I had learned from cancer, but alas my bank statements told another story. The reality of meeting mortgage payments and other bills, took over from my fantasies of living another life.
I struggled to fit in again, struggled to concentrate on tasks, hampered by my “chemo-brain” and unrelenting fatigue. I felt my cancer experience had changed my world profoundly, but nothing appeared to be changed at work - and I felt very disconnected as a result. However I didn't feel comfortable after such a lengthy absence discussing my difficulties with my employer or co-workers. So I struggled on in silence.
Now with the benefit of hindsight, I would say it is important to be honest with your employer about how you are coping. Can you have a meeting before you return to work to discuss strategies which will ease the transition? Discuss the possibility of a phased or gradual return to work and adjustments to work load if appropriate. Consider booking some sessions with a counselor or cognitive behavioral therapist to build up your confidence and coping skills (perhaps your employer already has such a scheme in place and you can avail of the service). Above all keep the lines of communication open and don't feel that you have to suffer in silence. Most employers will be understanding and want to help make the adjustment easier, if you communicate clearly with them.
And what of my own adjustment to work? Well it is now five years since I returned, and I have made significant changes. I now work part-time, which allows me to achieve the work-life balance I wanted. I spend the time I am not working, enjoying the things that feed my soul - walking, meditation, writing, and spending time with friends. On the days I am in work, I return renewed and refreshed. I realize how lucky I am to be able to achieve this balance and am grateful that my circumstances allow it. Not everyone has this luxury, but I encourage you whatever your work and financial situation, to look at the adjustments you can make, however small, to achieve the most fulfilling and rewarding life you can for yourself.
Marie, a public relations and social media guru by trade, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. Ever since she has been involved in patient advocacy from her home base in Ireland. Read more from her at her blog Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer.