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Back To Work After Breast Cancer: Personal Stories

Women can do it all. Many go right back to jobs after breast cancer. Hear from some who've made it work.

Inspiration and Advice from Working Breast Cancer Survivors

“It’s all a matter of attitude,” says breast cancer survivor Delores Nowell, about working during and after her breast cancer treatments. “After my first chemo treatment I spent three days crying and feeling sorry for myself. After that, I got up and said to myself: ‘I have to get on with living and do what I have to do.’ I found strength in my God.”

Ms. Nowell, a 56-year-old legal secretary from Atlanta, Georgia, works a 38-hour week in a big law firm.

“It’s a stressful job,” she admits. But she stuck to her work schedule, taking no more than a few days off, through her breast cancer diagnosis, a lumpectomy, and months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Back to Work with a Positive Attitude

“I missed nine days of work for the surgery,” Nowell says. “After that, I took days off for chemo but made up the time during the week, and also used my sick and vacation days.” Nowell says staying active and being with her friends at work helped keep her going. The most important advice she has for other survivors is to keep a positive attitude. “If you lie in bed all the time, you just feel sorrier and sorrier for yourself,” Nowell says, “and that will lead to depression.”

Nowell describes her law firm as an unusually supportive work environment. When she told her boss that she had breast cancer his reaction was: “Do whatever you have to do and we’ll take care of you.” When she returned home after surgery, one of the partners at the firm had brought her a filet mignon dinner.

Cancer Survivors and Productivity

Not all women with cancer are that lucky. If you have less supportive supervisors and coworkers, you may worry that revealing your diagnosis will result in your being fired, or not receiving a promotion. Your boss may think that you’ll be less productive or miss more days of work than other workers—a common misconception about cancer survivors. In fact, research shows that cancer survivors are as productive as other workers and do not use more than their share of sick and vacation days.

Adjusting Cancer Treatment Schedules for Work

Some simple practical adjustments also helped Nowell to stick to her treatment and work schedules. “I chose Fridays for my chemo treatments so that I would have the weekend to recover,” she says. Nowell advises working breast cancer survivors to schedule chemotherapy treatments for Thursdays or Fridays. “You might have to experiment a few months, to see when the treatment hits you the hardest,” she says.

Snacks, Naps and Medications: How to Get Back To Work

Other practical tips include keeping snacks around your work area at all times and letting your boss know when you need time off. Nowell says on some mornings she just couldn’t get out of bed, so she called in sick. On other days, she felt weak or tired so she asked to go home early. She says it’s important not to overdo it—if you need a break, take it, and make the time up later. Another big help for Nowell are the four different types of anti-nausea medications she gets from her doctor. 

Finding Support During and After Cancer

Finally, Nowell advises all breast cancer survivors to find support groups, whether specifically for survivors, or affiliated with a religious or community organization. “I wouldn’t have made it without my work family, my church family and my friends,” Nowell says. Ultimately, she thinks, it’s her friends and her faith that get her through each day.

Humour Helps

Joni Greene, a 42-year-old survivor of bilateral mastectomy and eight additional cancer-related operations, chose a job she’d be able to handle during treatments. Ms. Greene discovered her breast cancer before moving from Texas to Virginia. “When I got to Virginia I knew I would be battling breast cancer so I looked for a job where I could basically set my own days and hours,” she says. “I decided on substitute teaching and I loved it.”

For Greene, humour is a key to workplace survival. When she lost her hair, she turned her wigs and baldness into conversation pieces. “The faculty and staff thought I was inspirational and the children thought I was nuts,” she says. “I would wear a long blonde wig one day and maybe a short red one the next. It kept them on their toes. They would always ask me to take off my wig and one day I did. After that they called me GI Jane. I liked my new nickname.”

Another time, Greene’s breasts were extremely hard from expansion treatments. During a physical education class a small rubber ball hit her chest “and the ball shot across the room like it had hit a cement wall,” she recalls. “I didn’t even feel it because the nerves in my chest were dead. After that the kids were calling me ‘bionic boob!’ Gotta love ‘em!”