How to make a return to work after cancer: 10 tips to remember

This transition does not have to be stressful and with the right planning it can be an important part of the recovery process

The true impact of cancer is hard to measure. Hearing the words “you have cancer” has all sorts of implications for an individual and their family. The physical worries and side effects of treatment are well known, but often the psychological impact is underestimated.

It is a life-changing event for most people when they hear those words.

According to the latest National Cancer Registry Ireland (NCRI) annual report, 112 Irish people are diagnosed with cancer every day and the disease now causes some 8,875 deaths a year, which makes for sobering reading. But there is hope, as there are now more then 170,000 people in Ireland living with and beyond cancer as survival rates improve. Our survivor population is growing, thanks to better public awareness of signs and symptoms, increased levels of early detection, and improved treatment options.

Support for our survivor population is needed now more than ever when dealing with the challenges ahead.


I am director of nursing services with the Marie Keating Foundation, and through our work on our Survive & Thrive and Positive Living programmes, we see and hear of these challenges that come with living well with or beyond cancer. One of the areas that can cause the greatest anxiety for many, is the transition back to work.

Emotional support

Recognising that both survivors and employers need support in this area, the Marie Keating Foundation, supported by Novartis, has produced a free booklet with advice on both the practical and emotional support that is needed around this time. It tackles both the employer and employee perspective, and is available for download on our website or by emailing to request a free copy.

For anyone facing this transition back to “normal” and a return to the workplace, here are some short pieces of advice to consider:

1) Plan ahead and agree a return-to-work plan with your employer. This will not only help you in a practical sense, it will also provide you with peace of mind about re-entering the workplace.

2) Consider changing your role at work if you feel you can no longer perform your original job. Perhaps you need extra training or a refresher course? Or maybe you would prefer to work from home some of the time?

3) It's a good idea also to schedule regular meetings with your boss in advance. These will help you monitor your progress once you've returned to the workplace. It will also provide you with an opportunity to discuss any issues that may arise and work on finding a solution together.

4) It's worth considering a phased return to work, which would allow you to work part-time at first, perhaps working mornings only two or three days per week, and therefore easing you back into the workplace. Consider your employer's needs as much as your own, and find an arrangement that suits both parties.

5) After a lengthy leave of absence from the workplace, you will no doubt be questioned about your illness by your colleagues. Think about this before you go back to work. Some people choose to be completely open about their cancer and what they've been through. Others prefer not to talk about it or keep answers to a minimum.

6) You may be on the road to recovery, but the cancer treatment you've undergone is bound to have taken its toll. As a result, you need to go easy on yourself in the workplace, especially when you first return. One way of doing this is to ask for reasonable adjustments to be made to your work schedule. Do you need to factor in more breaks during your working day, or time to rest, for example? Perhaps you have a GP or hospital appointments to attend?

7) You most likely won't know what you're actually capable of until you return to the workplace. On top of this, you may have to attend regular hospital or GP appointments. It's a good idea therefore to keep your working arrangements as flexible as possible. Discuss this with your boss, your manager or the HR department before you return to the workplace.


8) Take into account your finances when returning to work. If you're returning on a phased basis, working part-time for example, you may experience a drop-in wage. Consider whether you'll still be able to cover your monthly outgoings. Remember that you build up annual leave while you're off work sick. This may cover a flexible return to work allowing you to work a reduced number of days a week for a number of weeks, while still receiving full pay.

9) It's quite common for those who have had cancer, or who are still undergoing treatment for cancer, to switch roles or to change jobs once they return to work. If you're considering changing jobs, think very carefully about the new job and whether or not it could be stressful. If you decide to apply for a new job at this stage, prepare for the interview in advance. Consider getting some independent career advice before making any decisions.

10) It's important to know your rights in relation to cancer and the workplace should any problems arise when you return to work. Legally, no one has a right to treat you any differently because you've had, or still have, cancer. If you have concerns over the way you've been treated, raise them with the HR department.

Returning to work during or after a cancer journey, doesn’t have to be stressful or intimidating and with the right planning it can be an important part of the recovery process. Whatever you decide to do in relation to your job, make sure it is the right decision for you and one that will give you the most peace of mind. If the Marie Keating Foundation can help in anyway please get in touch.