Dr Rob Yeung, a chartered psychologist and author, answers your questions on returning to work after going through breast cancer treatment.
It’s hard to rebuild your confidence in the workforce
I do a lot of coaching with people who are going for job interviews and experiencing difficulties in their work. This sometimes involves me supporting people who have had health issues and have gone through medical treatment.
Many people I work with feel very low and want help in building up their resilience and confidence again. But I always remember that every individual’s experience is different.
Q1. I’m worried about people’s reactions to my hair loss
‘I am a secondary school teacher and will be going back in September after a year of breast cancer treatment. I haven’t dealt well with losing my hair, and I’ve cut myself off from lots of friends and most of my work colleagues. I’m worried about being on show at the front of the classroom and how my colleagues are going to speak to me about my experience. What could help?’
It’s a good idea to prepare answers to questions that you might be asked. Think of it like preparing for a job interview – it helps to have a loose script of answers that you’ve thought about beforehand so you can feel confident and unflustered.
Think about your situation in returning to work. What are the most likely questions that you’ll be asked by colleagues and students? If you think ahead about how much you’d like to reveal it will help you stay in control. It’s also a good idea to think about some phrases you can use when you’ve had enough of questions and want to let people know you don’t want to talk about it.
Q2. I can’t do as much as I used to because of the side effects of treatment
‘I returned to work six months ago after going through treatment for breast cancer, and long-term side effects, like fatigue and cognitive issues, have meant that I can’t handle the same workload anymore. It’s really knocked my confidence and I’m feeling really low. What can I do to build my confidence back up?’
Studies show that mindfulness can help improve psychological wellbeing. There are lots of free resources online, like guided audio tracks that help introduce you to the practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is simply about paying attention to your current physical experience rather than reflecting on past thoughts or future worries. If your mind is wandering to past events or future problems, simply focus for a few moments on your breathing. Doing this might help you escape emotional lows more effectively.
Something else that might help you is planning. From planning your meals to planning on how to deal with difficult colleagues – making plans helps you focus on what you can do rather than why things have happened to you. People who focus more on ‘how' questions tend to feel less distressed and less anxious than people who focus more on ‘why’ questions.
Q3. Fatigue is making my return to work unbearable
‘I am trying to return to work after finishing breast cancer treatment but fatigue is making it unbearable. My energy levels are low in the afternoon and, despite speaking to colleagues about how I feel, they don’t seem to get it. For example, one colleague responded by saying I should throw myself back into my work. Feeling misunderstood is making me feel alone. What could help?’
It’s natural to experience an emotional rollercoaster after cancer treatment. One thing that might help is to join a support group, in person or online like Breast Cancer Care’s Forum. Sometimes just being able to express your thoughts and have others respond with empathy and compassion helps.
Take some time to reflect on your situation. Imagine that you are giving advice to someone who is in a similar situation to you. Psychological studies have shown that people are often able to make better decisions and plans when they are thinking about how they would advise someone else rather than themselves.
What advice would you give this other person? What do you suggest this person might do to protect her energy levels and feel less fatigued? What options should this other individual be considering in terms of her career, her colleagues and her responsibilities?
You shouldn’t struggle alone with this dilemma. Seek the advice of some people you trust, like a colleague or a friend. Some people feel better when they feel that they can speak unguardedly to at least one or two people in their lives.
Remember, the goal here is not just to vent your feelings but hopefully also to identify some practical solutions that will be of real help to you.
Find out more tips for returning to work after breast cancer treatment.