Living with and beyond cancer

Work changes

Some of the people we interviewed were working at the time they were diagnosed with cancer, and found that cancer affected their work or career.  Most were able to return to work full or part time, and felt that resuming their job was an important part of getting ‘back to normal’ after cancer.  Others stopped working, re-trained, or took early retirement in order to concentrate on their health or because their job involved physical work or there were restrictions within their job.  One man was a pilot in the Navy when he was diagnosed with lymphoma. He needed to stop flying for several years until he had successfully completed his treatment. Although back flying again, he says he has lost the chance of promotion and he needs to retrain in the new technologies.
Having cancer was a major event, and made several people re-evaluate their lives.  Surviving cancer was the encouragement they needed to ‘make a change’ in how they lived their lives.  For instance, some people re-assessed their work priorities and decided to try a different career, which was a positive change for many. Others gave up their jobs completely to focus on other aspects of their lives, such as hobbies or their family.  One woman who was living past ovarian cancer gave up her work because she wanted to focus on other things, such as painting, writing and spending time with her mother and grandchildren. 
Some took the opportunity to go back to university or college and retrain in a different career doing something that they had always wanted to do.  One woman found it hard to make any long-term plans until her doctors told her that her disease was in remission, at which point she committed to going back to university to complete a Master’s degree. 
Feeling more tired than usual or finding it hard to concentrate was a common long-term effect of having had cancer. Sometimes people felt that they were dealing with fatigue even many years post-diagnosis and that this extra tiredness meant making adjustments to how they worked. Occasionally, this extra fatigue meant having to get a job more locally in order to minimise travel to and from work. Julie used to commute to a job in London, but the stress of her job and long commute made her tired and more susceptible to coughs and colds. She now works nearer to home and although there is a big difference in salary, she wishes she’d made this change ‘years ago’. 
People who worked in physically demanding jobs often had to make adjustments to how they worked during their cancer treatment until they felt strong enough to return to their old role. A few people found that they never regained their strength or energy and decided to leave or change their jobs altogether. A man who worked as a ship builder was too weak to carry on with the physical nature of this job and he had to retire.  Another man worked as a surveyor, but he didn’t have the strength to work on building sites anymore so he also gave up his job. Ian was diagnosed with leukaemia when he was 27 and left his job as a police officer because he found that the stress of his job was too much to bear. He re-trained as an occupational therapist and his new colleagues are understanding about him needing some ‘down time’ when he’s tired. Succeeding in a new career has given him the confidence to go out and try new and different things. 
Worries about future illnesses or cancer coming back affected how some people felt about their long-term career. Marilyn described how she has lost her work confidence and can’t see herself ‘mentally re-adjusting’ to working anymore, especially as she’s not sure if her cancer might come back or not. Claire, who had colorectal cancer seven years ago, was wary of moving to a new job as she wouldn’t be eligible for sick pay for two years. 
For the most part, people felt that their employers were sympathetic and supportive of their illness. While they may have needed some time off around the time of diagnosis and cancer treatment, those who stayed in work felt that having had this extra support helped them through a difficult time. Those who were self-employed faced extra financial challenges due to not getting sick pay through work or losing long-term clients as a result of taking time off to recover from cancer and its treatment. 
Not everyone had a positive experience when dealing with their employers, and some felt that their past illness meant they were treated differently at work. Claire was passed over for a promotion due to her medical history and now she is more careful about disclosing aspects of her illness to her employers. 
Cancer can affect people of all ages. A few people who were much younger than retirement age decided to, or were asked to retire from their job following their cancer diagnosis. One 45 year old woman who had worked in a busy GP surgery had a lowered immune system from her lymphoma treatment, and retired due to worries about contracting infections. Occasionally, those who had to retire early felt sad about having to stop work. A 39 year old woman who had lived past ovarian cancer didn’t feel that she’d have the energy to do her job even now and misses the challenge of working as a teacher. Michael (Interview 112), who was 48 and gave up his job when he was diagnosed with leukaemia, feels that if he hadn’t had cancer he would have liked to keep working until retirement age. Nowadays, he finds that cancer is playing less of a major role in his life and now he is trying to find other things to do to fill his time. 

Last reviewed October 2018.
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