Returning to work after cancer

Whether you’ve had it yourself or know someone who has, few of us have not been touched by cancer in some form or other. It’s a traumatic experience and one which has a knock-on effect on every aspect of people’s lives. 

Returning to work after recovery is one aspect of that trauma. It’s one which Liz Yeates, now the CEO of the Marie Keating Foundation, found herself facing in September 2013 after having breast cancer.

In fact, Liz had been off work for just 11 months. She’d first been diagnosed in October 2012 with two different types of malignant tumours in her right breast. Unfortunately, a third tumour was found in her lymph nodes and as result, she underwent a full mastectomy and the removal of her lymph nodes just four weeks later, followed by 6 months of chemotherapy and radiation. 

Before being diagnosed, 47 year old Liz was living a happy, normal life. Married with three teenage children, she felt fit and healthy. “Besides the lump in my breast, I had no symptoms whatsoever, so the cancer came as a complete shock to me,” she says. “What was more devastating was the news that I had to have a mastectomy. I had always been active and healthy so the thought of my body shape being disfigured was hard to take. It was a very emotional time for me.”

“I had great support from my family, friends and colleagues, but even with that, the experience of having cancer completely floors you,” says Liz. “You think ‘Why me? What did I do wrong?’ You lose your confidence in every way and your whole life is thrown upside down.” 

It was also the first time in her life she found herself unable to work. “I’d been a bank manager for 20 years before moving to the charity sector,” she says. “Working was always an important part of who I was.”

When it came to returning to work she decided to try working three days a week to ease herself back into the work place. Luckily her employers had been considerate throughout her ordeal, and also had a policy of paying employees for up to six months in circumstances like hers.

“I had a lot of support from my colleagues,” says Liz. “My boss even kept in touch with me throughout the nine months of my treatment.”

 

Naturally she was still apprehensive about returning to work. Although her position had been kept open for her (filled in temporarily by a colleague), Liz decided to ask for a different role when she returned. “I didn’t want to tread on anyone’s toes and I knew things had moved on in my absence. I wanted a fresh start.”

She also underwent an independent health assessment at the request of the HR department which she welcomed. It wasn’t just a physical assessment but a psychological one so her progress in work and how she was dealing with the experience could be monitored.

She still had numerous medical appointments to attend so the flexibility of working part-time suited her. “I’d recommend anyone returning to the workplace after cancer to go easy on themselves and ease themselves back in slowly,” says Liz. “It helps of course if the employer is flexible in that respect too.

“Don’t push yourself and find you’re suddenly under undue stress. Take it slowly and do what you can.” Ultimately however she found that as she got absorbed in her work again, it was a great distraction and good for her ongoing recovery.

Six months after her return, Liz decided to take on a new role which enabled her to marry her experience as a cancer patient with her career. She joined the Marie Keating Foundation initially as Director of Public Affairs. 13 months later she was promoted to the role of CEO, a job she still holds to this day in which she is passionate about helping others who are facing the trauma and recovery from cancer.

 

The Marie Keating Foundation not only provide counselling and support for men and women with cancer, through their Comfort Fund they also provide financial assistance to cancer patients who find themselves in financial difficulty as a result of their illness. In addition to this, they run day-long and six-week Survive & Thrive workshops all over the country for people like Liz who are returning to work after cancer. 

“Cancer robs you of your femininity and your confidence,” says Liz. “Our aim is to try and build that confidence again and improve the psychological, physical and emotional wellbeing of women – and men – who’ve been through it.

“Returning to work is never going to be easy, but it helps to be prepared and know you’re not alone.”

For more information on the Marie Keating Foundation visit: mariekeating.ie