Updated: Sep 8, 2020
I left work on sick leave 10 days after I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer, I worked full time, have been with the same employer for 13 plus years, and love my job working in post-secondary education. I chose to take my leave immediately and be off throughout my treatment starting with chemotherapy. Because my return to work date was unknown my point of contact for my leave was with my benefits provider. A representative phoned me two days before I was to start chemo and when I explained that I was going to have an aggressive treatment, every 2 weeks and that the side effects would build upon one another and I would continue to feel more and more fatigued as time went on, he responded with “Well some people work throughout chemo”.
At that moment, I was shocked by his lack of consideration and empathy towards someone who was JUST diagnosed with cancer, who had no idea how she would feel on chemo and also had banked almost all her sick leave since starting at this job and had the time off to take. I didn’t react, under all the stress I had, I understood that he was doing his job and was just kind of a jerk who happened to have a lack of sympathy and understanding. But if I was able to look at what happened with that perspective with my life being dangled in front of me why was it okay for him to make me feel even worse??
I confidently chose not to work during treatment, after my first chemo it was not even an option and I moved on from feeling guilty about my decision and closed the door to my employer firmly. I was thankful that this was an option for me as I know not everyone has the same options.
As one treatment ended, and I would start into recovery leading up to another step be it surgery or radiation I was always stressed about returning to work. The unknown of that date bothered me all the time, surgery dates, next appointments, when would my benefits provider need more information, etc. I knew I had surgery and approximately 6-8 weeks to recover. A week or so after my double mastectomy my insurer sent me paperwork to complete moving me from short to long term disability. It was pages and pages of documentation, some I needed to fill out, others my doctor all while I had very limited arm movement, and a lack of interest and focus. I found it stressful, reliving dates, and wondering how much information was going to either send me back to work sooner or later. I felt deep down not ready on any level, however, when I spoke with my benefits provider they were only ever focused on physical ability and never asked about emotional or mental. It stressed me out all the time. Not having a date to return was anxiety-inducing as I often thought about when I was off for maternity, I always knew when I would return and could prep for that date and as early as I wanted to in terms of being ready to go back.
There was often always lags in the communication with my benefits provider, I also never spoke to the first representative again, I had 2 others and assumed this was a high turnover position. Emails would go unanswered for weeks and until I had dates for my next treatment, I was always concerned the call would come to send me back. All the while, anyone I talked to being other cancer patients, survivors, etc. said do not rush back to work. Once your back, your back. I also met a young woman at a retreat who did go back earlier then she thought, she was convinced she was ready and ended up off again for even longer. I knew I would have to advocate for myself on this one, this was my life and I needed to be healthy not just physically.
Once I recovered from surgery, I was ready to start radiation which was 25 days and 4 weeks recovery. That was followed by a second surgery booked 3 months later, so while this was being all planned and waiting for it to happen, I continued to be off work. I started to see my social worker again every 2 weeks and it was very evident that until my active treatment was done, I hadn’t processed any of which I experienced and was emotionally drained and feeling anxious that the past 10 months. It was very helpful to work through various things with her and as my 2nd surgery date approached the plan was I would return to work once recovered which was 4-6 weeks. I felt un-ready still at this time being it would place me about 12 months since diagnosis. I was still adjusting to so much; I was focused on continuing to improve my overall well being and didn’t think working full time was going to help that.
My surgery was postponed and not rescheduled for another 3 months. I struggled until I realized that it was a total blessing in disguise. I needed that time. When I recovered from this surgery, I was 15 months post-diagnosis and had been off work for 16 months. I started the process to return to work, filling out paperwork, phone calls with my benefits provider, and then…. a pandemic.
Of all the ways I dreamt and stressed about returning to work, a pandemic was one that never crossed my mind. With all that was going on in the world, I never heard from my benefits provider for quite some time. I had my kids’ home; my husband was still working at the time from home and I was now homeschooling and parenting full strength ahead. It was 2.5 months of that before I was dropped from my sick leave and had a return to work plan. I missed out on physio and other supports they offer to those returning to work and once June 1, 2020 hit, I was back. I was worried I was also going to not be able to perform as well as I once had. I was part-time for 4 weeks as I pushed for that with my doctor’s approval.
With the pandemic, I was now going to be transitioning back to work from home. My transition looked like this;
Week 1 – 4 hours for 3 days
Week 2, 3 and 4 – 4 hours everyday
Week 5 – 6 hours
Week 6 – full time
I enjoyed the half days; it gave me a chance to re-coup in the afternoon, continuing to work through schoolwork with my kids and the normal dinner, etc. that I was used to having time for. I didn’t feel that much of a change in terms of my fatigue or energy for the first month. I think it was exciting to be back, I was feeling more my old self and life as it once was. I enjoyed the flexibility of getting up, getting coffee, and being already at work. However, by the time I was starting full time I was seeing how it was starting to get to me and in a way that it wouldn’t of if I hadn’t had cancer. Fatigue is real! It is not easy, napping does not make you feel rested and I often was barely able to keep my eyes open, making me feel so unwell after my workday. I went from practicing yoga everyday to barely at all, I felt I had less patience for my kids and energy to make meals or do everyday house stuff. I am 2 months into being back to work. I have the most supportive workplace, boss, and colleagues you could imagine, and it is still hard.
I know I need to work on balance, finding the time for myself. I am happy to be back to work, I learned slowing down is important and that is where I am most comfortable. I still tend to take on too much and suffer days after. It is hard to give yourself back to work when you have a mind full of worry, fears, and a body that is more tired and lacks resiliency. It will come, I need to be patient.
I would recommend to anyone not rush back to work if that is an option, 18 months was probably as early as I could have returned. Advocate for what you need, longer part-time to full-time transition. Be open and honest with your supervisor and colleagues. You are important and need to be your number one!