Working Through Chemo

By Kathleen Engel
Reviewed by Marc Garnick, MD; Lillie Shockney, RN, MS, BAS; and Theodore Tsangaris, MD

When breast cancer survivor Judy learned she’d need chemo, “My first thought was, I can’t take time off right now!” If you’re the type who’s wondering if you can charge your laptop during your chemo infusion, you probably feel just like Judy. Roughly 60% of cancer patients who work full-time continue working through chemo, according to a study of 1,433 subjects in the journal Cancer. And that can be a good thing: Changes in your routine (like watching morning TV instead of dressing for work) can stress you out—something that does not enhance the healing process—and “sitting home thinking can cause you to become deconditioned physically,” says Lillie Shockney, RN, MAS, administrative director of the Johns Hopkins Clinical Breast Programs and Cancer Survivorship Programs.

For Elizabeth, a breast cancer survivor, staying on the job was a lifeline: “Work is very important because it gives you a reason to get up in the morning and somewhere to go, and it keeps your mind off your diagnosis.”

Of course, if your work is physically or mentally demanding, doing your job while undergoing chemo may pose challenges. So ask your doctor if you can stay on the job. If he says it’s okay, remember these tips. They can help smooth your days with bosses, clients and co-workers and keep you on task:

How to tell, if you tell. You’re not obligated to tell your boss or co-workers about your cancer. But opening up does have a few advantages: You’ll be able to ask for flexibility in your schedule, plan for absences and prepare colleagues for a possible change in your appearance. You will also be able to benefit from the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Stay focused by setting limits. Chemo can leave you foggy and fatigued, but knowing how long your attention span is can keep you on track. If you start to feel fuzzy after two hours, take a 10-minute break at the end of that span instead of pushing yourself.

Steer the conversation with “yes, and…” Colleagues will show their concern by asking how you are doing, but that can leave you feeling like the token “cancer co-worker.” Next time someone asks, say something like, “Yes, I feel terrific, and I’m really excited about the new software we’re getting.” The technique shifts attention from your cancer.

Find a way to remember. Now’s not the time to count on your memory! Use sticky notes, keep a calendar, record messages on your smart phone—whatever it takes to help you keep track of appointments, meetings, deadlines and to-do’s. Tip: Carry a memo pad around with you in case of an impromptu meeting.

Published March 2014

  Thriving During Chemo

5 Ways to Care for Yourself During Chemo
Keep Healthy During Chemo
20 Ways to Thrive During Chemo
Preparing for the Completion of Chemo
Working Through Chemo

More Chemo Basics

4 Reasons to Get Organized
Chemotherapy: Staying on Schedule
Your Rights During Treatment
On the Job With Chemo
18 Real Ways to Thrive Through Chemo!