The Crappy Reality of Returning to Work After Cancer

the-crappy-reality-of-returning-to-work-after-cancer

By Aya McMillan

Remember that Seinfeld episode where George Costanza had a custom desk built with a hidden bed underneath so he could take afternoon naps? “I finally found a way to sleep in my office,” he exclaimed. “Under the desk. I lie on my back. I tuck in the chair. I’m invisible. I’m REFRESHED.”

I would murder someone for that refreshing feeling RN. The only thing I want more in life than a sleeper desk is to not want a sleeper desk.

It’s been two and half years since I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, and tired doesn’t even begin to describe how I feel. Post-cancer, my fatigue remains ever present and all consuming. In Internet parlance, #thestruggleisreal.

When I was undergoing treatment in 2017 – countless excruciating scans, a partial mastectomy, 21 rounds of radiation and the start of hormone therapy for the next decade – I wanted to be just about anywhere else. I counted down the days until I would be given the all clear and could finally move forward with my life.

So when recruiters started contacting me last year, and employment opportunities opened up, I was ecstatic. For a girl who was coming out of treatment with no work, no relationship and no doctor’s protocols to help guide my way forward, the narrative of this new chapter felt pretty perfect.

But no one warned me of the challenges of re-entry.

Being cancer free, people said, was supposed to be the BEST moment of this whole experience: “You’ll get to go live your life, and it’s going to be so amazing and different!” But in reality, even on my best days, I feel totally, physically wrecked with exhaustion.

Life, of course, wasn’t always this. Before the Big C, I was self-assured, Type-A organized, a fountain of creativity and sharp as a tack. I could also work 16-hour days — in stilettos! —on just a few hours sleep.

Today I have a fraction of my old energy, uncontrollable irritability, chronic joint pain, weird vision and hearing issues, and a brain so foggy… I forgot what I was going to say.

Oh, yeah: that I’m grieving. I struggle with the psychological imprints of this experience. And beyond the scars and trauma, I struggle with integrating who I was before my diagnosis, and who it is that I’m becoming now.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m incredibly grateful to be alive and I’m painfully aware that this struggle is a privilege that many don’t get to have. Yet my life as it was, the one I envisioned and built and paid my dues for, is gone. Some days I feel so lost and broken I can barely breathe.

It’s exhausting. And it’s also expensive. I spend, for example, $288.89 on supplements. Every. Single. Month.

Each morning I take a cocktail of cognitive enhancers: Goop-approved powders to modulate my mood. Naturopath and acupuncturist-prescribed Chinese medicines help balance out my hormones (or lack thereof). And then there are the priciest of the bunch, the function-aiding Nootropics that claim to improve memory, motivation, and energy levels overall.

It’s what I do to make it through my workday. It’s what I do in order to feel halfway human.

Nevertheless, I persist.

I’m proud that I’ve cobbled together a functional life for myself out here among the living. I love my work, and my team. But being ‘cured’ is not where the work of healing ends. It’s where it begins.


Are you heading back to work after a cancer diagnosis? Here are some tips to help make it a success.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *