Karen Reynolds

Seven steps to take when transitioning back to work

In 2014, Karen R. was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. She was treated at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) with eight rounds of chemotherapy, followed by a lumpectomy and then six weeks of daily radiation therapy. Karen shares what worked for her to help manage the transition back to her career and life.

  1. Connect with your team before returning. It’s important to connect with your human resources (HR) representative about the responsibilities of your role and any changes impacting those responsibilities. Inquire about any changes in your work environment that may impact day-to-day duties, including parking, building access, access to resources, etc. If there have been changes, share them with your doctor so he or she can accurately assess all aspects of your performance and ability to return to work.
  2. Talk with your doctor and/or care team. Connect with your care team on strategies to prepare you for your return to work. Think through and share what your day-to-day activities may entail. Convey any concerns you have and discuss what to expect once you resume your work responsibilities.
  3. Know your rights. Research legal protections afforded to employees with cancer. Be prepared to discuss available options and solutions with your HR representative, your manager or your health care provider's nurse advocate for support and guidance. Don't be afraid to ask for a “reasonable accommodation” as a temporary means of support to accomplish your day-to-day responsibilities. Having this information may be helpful as you prepare for your conversation with your HR representative. Your doctor may also have suggestions for support. In my case, the required travel for my role changed. The responsibilities I was returning to were different from what I’d presented to my doctor to secure his approval for my return to work. I advocated for myself once I learned that my performance expectations no longer aligned with what my doctor was releasing me to do, specifically immediate and increased travel, which would significantly impact me physically. My self-advocacy helped us work out an accommodation that satisfied everyone involved. I also underestimated the impact of resuming that level of physicality after being on leave. Even my one-hour-plus commute one way proved to be more taxing than I anticipated, especially at the end of the day.
  4. Submit all required paperwork prior to physically returning to work. There are legal requirements to this process. Solidify your return-to-work date, obtain and understand all necessary documents, and consult with your HR representative prior to returning to work.
  5. Be prepared for questions. Think about how you want to respond to questions about your absence. Some colleagues may know about your leave, while others may not. Some may ask awkward or uncomfortable questions. Give some thought to how much (or how little) you want to share and how you'll handle other people's responses or reactions to you. Remember to give yourself and others grace as these interactions transpire.
  6. Consider revisiting your systems and processes, if needed. As you acclimate to the work environment, assess your own performance. Look at what’s working and what’s not. If you find yourself struggling in certain areas, seek support from your care team and share what you’re experiencing. My care team referred me to a cognitive therapist at CTCA® who was a tremendous help. I struggled with chemo brain. My focus and organizational skills weren’t the same after treatment. I found that stress exacerbated these symptoms. I relied on navigational apps for travel, note- taking and dictation apps for organization, and mind teasers and games to stimulate and challenge my brain. I also spent extra time at the beginning and end of my day to plan and review my to-do list.
  7. Pace yourself! While it can feel good to push yourself, please listen to your body. Don’t be surprised if you experience challenges or feel a difference, especially in the areas of focus and/or stamina. Cancer treatment takes a lot out of the body. Be gentle with yourself.