Aside from the more obvious physical symptoms of cancer and fatigue following treatment, there can also be emotional and mental side effects such as depression and low mood. All of this can have an impact on a patient’s ability to work; many people are forced to reduce their working hours, or even stop working altogether.
Recent research from Macmillan Cancer Support shows that continuing to work is important for 85% of people who were working when they were diagnosed. This is for reasons such as wanting to ‘maintain a sense of normality’ (60%) or ‘needing the money’ (54%).
Whatever the reason, we know that staying in or returning to work can be hugely positive for employees with cancer or for those caring for someone with cancer. However, it needs to be handled in the right way, ensuring employees feel comfortable with their workload as well as supported in what they can and can’t do.
Once treatment has been completed, it is important for employers to remember that just because someone has returned to work, it does not mean they are ‘back to normal’. Follow-up appointments and longer-term side effects can have an impact on employees too, so it is important for line managers to be aware of this.
Jamie, who has undergone treatment for testicular cancer, describes how his cancer treatment had long-term effects, which impacted him in the workplace.
When I returned to work, one and a half stone lighter and hairless, and went out on site for the first time, some of the construction lads said, ‘it can’t have been that bad, you didn’t die’, which made me laugh.
People around me soon settled into the routine of me being around. I was glad to be back, it was the norm again. But for the next 10 years I still had to attend regular tests.
For the two weeks before each of those appointments, I was convinced that every ache, pain or twinge was cancer coming back to get me – and two weeks after my appointment I was waiting for the letter to drop on the doormat to tell me my cancer was back.
This went on for three years, during which time fatigue also hit me hard. I was shattered, the chemotherapy and stress made me feel permanently tired. It isn’t easy for colleagues to understand, and some commented ‘you shouldn’t be tired, go to bed earlier and sleep’ - which is easier said than done. I could sleep eight hours and still feel just as tired.’
At my very last appointment of the decade I was told, ‘that’s it, there is no need to come back’. Fantastic! I laughed and cried all the way home. But despite my relief it was a very difficult time and depression struck. I was no longer being checked, no longer being seen, I’d lost a group of friends, who were almost like family. I was out in the real world with no support.
This went on for a long time and not everyone understands how you get the best news ever and can still be depressed because of it.
Almost 21 years later and I still have blips in March when my experience began. It’s easier and can be brushed aside, but it’s still there.
Make sure you are ready to support someone with cancer
As Jamie’s experience shows, it is vital that line managers continue regular reviews and support meetings with employees living with cancer, so they know that the right support is there for them.
If you are an employer, there are a range of steps you can take to ensure your managers are confident and equipped in supporting employees affected by cancer.
If you have any questions, Macmillan Cancer Support is here to help. If you would like more help on how to support employees affected by cancer, visit macmillan.org.uk/atwork, email [email protected] or call 020 7840 4725 to find out more about our support.
About Michelle Griffiths
Michelle is the Development Manager for Macmillan at Work, which provides support for HR professionals and Line Managers to help them feel equipped and confident in supporting employees affected by cancer.
If you have any questions about work and cancer, Macmillan Cancer Support is here to help. If you would like more help on how to support employees affected by cancer, visit www.macmillan.org.uk/atwork, email [email protected] or call 020 7840 4725 to find out more about our support.