Back to Work – Life is Moving On – NOT!

By Barbara Cunnings-Versaevel

For everyone else, life has moved on. You are through treatment, “healed” and ready to pick up where you left off before cancer. Right??? Well, not really. Many things in your life have changed – some for the better, some for the worse or not so better.

It’s difficult for those who haven’t been on the cancer journey to totally understand what has happened to you not just on the outside, but on the inside. This is a huge disconnect and one that is difficult to transcend. Mostly it is scary for those on the outside, especially your co-workers, to face the reality that life is fragile. We are not immortal. Life happens and we get sick. But for sure, in this life, we will all die someday. For lots of us, much earlier than we ever imagined.

The one great thing about this epiphany is learning the value of life. Living each day to its fullest is a gift each time we wake up in the morning. Granted, we don’t always wake up in the best of spirits, but that also can be a choice we make. We are what we think. Our brain is much like a computer – garbage in, garbage out – or in reverse – great attitude in, great attitude out. We have a great deal more influence than we can imagine in how we color our day.
 
First Days Back at Work

This is a touchy time. Co-workers often don’t know what to say. Get well doesn’t seem to fit the bill as in the case of a surgery or illness. There is always the risk that something they say may set off an emotional tidal wave. I recall those days. Sometimes that emotion just bubbled up to the surface out of nowhere at the slightest provocation. I used to just tell people I was okay – this just needed to come out – relax – all was well. Know that most people mean well. They are just extremely uncomfortable. And, on the other hand, the people you least expect to be there for you are right on board.
 
Managing Energy Levels

Fatigue is a major side effect of cancer treatment. The treatments themselves have played havoc with your body. To suppress the growth of cancer, the immune system has been suppressed. Therefore, you have low levels of energy. Add to that, the emotional toll of dealing with cancer creates another backlash of energy drain.

People don’t understand the difference between fatigue you can push through and fatigue that equals absolutely no more energy in your energy bank. You’re done!!! It’s totally different. I remember this because as a dancer I had trained to push through fatigue. Athletes push through fatigue to build stamina and capacity. So, when I tried to do this after cancer, I crashed – totally. It took me a long time to find the balance of getting back to reasonable levels of work performance.
 
Go Back in Stages

This is why people go back to work in stages – starting with part time – every other day or only two days a week. Your body needs rest to heal, so I recommend the every other day so you have a recovery day in between.

This also means that you may have to curtail extracurricular activities on the days you work. Being at work will be enough for you to start. Eventually, as your energy bank increases and stamina builds up, you can add in extras on those days, but I caution you to go slow. This healing time will be different for everyone. Listening to your body is so important. Be aware of when you are starting to wear out and catch yourself before you go too far.
 
Physical Adjustments

Depending on the type of cancer you had, there may be physical changes that will require some adjustments. I’m thinking in particular of those who have had head, neck and/or throat cancers. Speech therapy is often required and affects an individual’s ability to communicate verbally. It can be a very frustrating period.

Some people develop lymphedema – either upper or lower body extremities. It may be not seem like a big deal, but it is depending on your occupation. If you’ve been accustomed to lifting heavy objects (things or people), you are going to find this isn’t possible anymore without aggravating your condition. If the lymphdema is in the hand, it will affect dexterity – I know of nurses who have not been able to go back to their last position – have had to find another way to carry on in their chosen career.

And, repetitive tasks that involve your arm – possibly keyboarding – may have to shift. People who walk distances or are on their feet most of the day in their work will be challenged if they have lymphedema in their legs.

All changes are going to likely be very frustrating in the beginning – both for you and for your employers to try and find where you can work in a healthy and safe environment. Bear with it – you will get through this part and find something new – maybe better than before.
 
Values Have Changed

Maybe you didn’t like your work too much before. Maybe that was part of the stress that accelerated your cancer situation. It may be time to make a big shift and find something different. Could be there has been an idea in the back of your mind for some time. You just haven’t had the courage to take it seriously. Well, now is the time. I’ve read such amazing stories of people who have turned their lives around and created the lifestyle of their dreams – one of their choosing that is totally satisfying. An opportunity they took to choose a lifestyle that honors their authentic self.

You now realize that life is finite. It’s time to do what you’ve always wanted to do. Don’t wait until retirement because retirement may never come. I still recall a situation when I was a teenager. Our neighbour was a bank manager. He and his wife saved up their money for a year long trip in a trailer to visit all their friends and family across Canada and the United States. He introduced the new bank manager to his staff on the Saturday, went out on the golf course with his son-in-law on the Sunday and had a massive heart attack. He was gone. I’ve never forgotten. Life can be cut short by anything – not just cancer. Why wait to live your life at a time in the future – a future that may never come.
 
Priorities

So, what do you want to do with your life? What have you put off for years for the right time? What most people don’t realize until it’s gone is the fact that your health is your most valuable asset. Most think it is the stuff they accumulate – the big house, the fancy car, the money in the bank, prestige, etc., etc. Truthfully, when you’re so sick you can’t get out of bed, none of that will make you feel any better. You still won’t be able to enjoy all those ‘fruits’ of your labour.

On the other hand, with health and vitality, you can live a simple life. If you choose all of the above, awesome! However, if it is not feeding your soul, then consider this. How much food can you really eat? How many clothes do you really need? How big a place do you really need to live with comfort? And, do you really need a car – what about a bicycle or using public transit? There are always options. Some take courage and trust, but they are solid options nonetheless. If your health is at stake, this may be the route you will want to explore.
 
In The End . . .

What matters most is what really matters to you. That is for you, and only you, to determine. Then it’s down to moving forward into the life you can envision. After all, it’s your life. Whoever is supposed to be on that journey with you will fall in easily. Those who are not will find their own path.

Lots to think about – but it will be the best thinking and time you ever give yourself. Best wishes on a fantastic journey and adventure because all of life is an adventure.

Barbara

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