This entry was written by Hester Hill Schnipper, a member of our medical advisory board:
One of the challenges of living with breast cancer, especially during treatment, is finding the right balance between work and personal life.
Most women who are treated for breast cancer take some time off from work. Depending on your course of treatment, you may need anything from a couple of weeks to six or more months of leave. In addition to the time dictated by medical/physical necessity, there are other factors that influence this decision.
Where you work and what you do matters. If you teach kindergarten, you likely will be worried by the constant physical demands and the exposure to every possible germ and virus known to five year olds. If you work in construction, you can’t be on the job until you have completely regained full physical strength. If you work in an office, the attitudes of your supervisor and colleagues will influence your planning. A manager who is flexible, understands your need for doctors’ appointments and allows you to work shorter days when you are not feeling well may make it feasible to work through much of treatment.
Additionally, there are the financial realities. It is helpful to have someone in human resources explain the benefits available to you. Do you have short-term disability? What happens to your insurance during a leave? If you only are paid for days you work, the pressure to return is even greater. If finances will be a problem for you, speak with an oncology social worker (ask your doctor for a referral) who can tell you about possible sources of assistance.
My best advice is not to make a decision too quickly. You’ll need some time to recover from surgery. Beyond that, it is impossible to generalize and hard to predict. Waiting to see how you react to chemotherapy will make the decision easier. As a general statement, women tend to feel the worst on days 3, 4, and 5 after chemo. Think about this when you schedule your treatment.
Very important: Do not listen to everyone else’s opinions. This is a topic where there is a lot of judgment–often without consideration for your particular physical, emotional, and financial needs. Only you know whether it would be better for your psychological health to be at home, away from any professional stresses, or at work, where distractions may take your mind off other things.
Returning to work is tricky. If you have been away for a while, you will have to face questions, stories, and sidelong glances. You’ll look differently than you did the last time co-workers saw you. I have had many conversations with women who could not decide whether they should wear a wig to work or go without. It can be helpful to speak with one or two people and ask them to ease your return by telling others what you look like and how much you want to talk about your diagnosis. Would you prefer to tell your story repeatedly or would you prefer that others leave it to you to start the conversation? Everyone has different preferences, and it will help to think about it before your return. The more concrete you can be with your requests, the better. Unfortunately, you can count on being ambushed by at least one thoughtless remark. Think ahead of time about how you will handle it.
My last piece of advice? Try to negotiate a gradual re-entry. If you can work part-time for the first week or two, it will be easier. You will be surprised by your physical and emotional fatigue as you return to your job. For many women, going to work every day for less than eight hours is easier than going fewer than five days/week. Again, you know best what seems right for you.
How long after treatment did you return to work? What tips do you have to share with other women preparing to come back to work? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below or on our Facebook page.
Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, BCD, OSW-C, is chief of oncology social work at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.