Back to work and back to reality, right? Right. Except when your reality involves a distressing cancer diagnosis, months of debilitating treatment, and a substantial number of residual emotional and psychological side effects.
For the majority of the working populace, Christmas already seems like a distant memory. It’s back to business as usual. But for honorary members of the exclusive cancer club, returning to work or — even scarier — starting a new job after treatment isn’t all smooth sailing. A variety of challenges go hand in hand with joining the workforce post-cancer.
I am typing this column in my new office. It’s 5:37 p.m. and depressingly dark outside (oh, the joys of winter in the U.K.). I am three days into my first real postgraduate job. I have found diving into a corporate setting six months after my bone marrow transplant to be, well, interesting.
It’s too early to reflect on how I am coping with it all. But I’ve compiled a short list of the positive and challenging elements of returning to work post-cancer.
Ah, yes. Fatigue is every cancer patient’s familiar foe. These days, I struggle to remember what life was like before the constant — and, at times, crippling — sense of fatigue that seems to follow me everywhere. I am overcome with a feeling of utter exhaustion by about 4 p.m. and rely heavily on caffeine to keep myself going. I’m also dealing with insomnia, a common side effect of cancer treatment, and a disorder that undermines my ability to function well.
Lack of concentration
I think of a lack of concentration as fatigue’s evil little brother. My attention span has improved significantly since my last cycle of chemotherapy, but I still draw a blank while searching for a word or phrase or when attempting to complete a task. Tiredness exacerbates the feeling. In a work setting, a lack of concentration can leave me feeling disempowered and well, frankly, a bit dumb.
I feel chagrined when I have to miss work for doctor’s appointments, blood tests, or scans. Having cancer twice has taught me the importance of putting my health first, but no one likes to miss meetings and deadlines because they’re stuck in a hospital waiting room for several hours.
Facing these hurdles while reentering the workforce hasn’t been easy. My tiredness and inability to concentrate remind me of my tumultuous journey. That said, returning to work has many upsides.
Break from cancer
The realization that my life no longer revolves around cancer is thrilling. Fresh out of treatment, one can easily feel as if they’ve lost their identity to this cruel malady. It’s hard to know who you are anymore. Work lets people assume a new, or at least more diverse, identity. There are new people to encounter, projects to get involved in, and deadlines to meet. You also feel as though you have more to live for again. It’s exciting and empowering.
I am discovering great joy in being a normal working member of society. A 9-to-5 job can seem hugely banal to many people (including myself, I’m sure, with time), but there’s an understated simplicity in routine — waking up, packing lunch, engaging in office banter, being involved in stimulating and challenging projects, and having coffee breaks. Many people with severe illnesses are denied this privilege. It is difficult to explain to people who haven’t experienced the joy of being, well, normal.
Lastly, I feel as though life is moving on. I have a future to look forward to again, with opportunity, growth, prospects of travel, money, exciting new ventures, and possibilities.
Cancer will always be a part of my story. My frequent scans and the anxiety that accompanies them remind me that I am never truly free of its clutches. But thanks to my job, there is fresh hope and excitement in my life again — an opportunity to create a new story. Work is showing me the importance of having a purpose, the beauty in staying busy, and the thrill of pushing myself and showing up in the world.
Wherever you are in your journey, whether you’re preparing to return to work, starting a new job, or coming to terms with retirement, I hope you aren’t too hard on yourself. There’s always more to come. You are more than this illness.
Note: Lymphoma News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Lymphoma News Today or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to lymphoma.
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