This article appears in Paint It All Pink magazine 2019.

Returning to work after treatment for breast cancer can be a return to normalcy.

“It’s a reminder that you are more than your cancer diagnosis,” said social worker Alida Rubinstein, coordinator of volunteers for the Adelphi NY Statewide Breast Cancer Hotline & Support Program. You’re a valued employee, boss or volunteer.

But can also be stressful, exhausting and disheartening.

Because 1 in 8 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, is likely that someone in the office may have faced a similar situation, Rubinstein said. When it comes to what to expect, think about how they were treated. Were others sympathetic and welcoming or did they face insensitive questions and subtle discrimination?

At home you feel like your cancer diagnosis, said hotline volunteer Myra Taylor, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004 at age 59. After treatment, Taylor returned to her job in information technology with JP Morgan Chase in Manhattan.

“It was good to go back and be with people again and not be cooped up at home being sick with nothing on my mind but cancer,” Taylor said.

In addition to the camaraderie, work is a great distraction, Rubinstein said. That’s especially helpful because people are often continuing treatment as they return to work, she said.

How to prepare

As time nears to return to work, it’s always advisable to speak with your doctor. If you’ve received short- or long-term disability coverage it’s mandatory to get a doctor’s permission, Rubinstein said.

“Ask if you’re ready to go back, what accommodations you may need,” she said.

For example, if you are still receiving chemotherapy your doctor may advise getting it on a Friday so you have the weekend to recover, Rubinstein said.

It’s a personal decision about how much or how little you want to share with coworkers, but it’s a good idea to discuss your situation with your supervisor and the company’s human resources department. Ask whether a flexible work arrangement is possible, if needed.

“At the beginning you probably won’t be able to do it all. You will feel tired, exhausted. Maybe you can’t stay late for an after-hours meeting, but stay positive. It’s temporary. You will get back to your full potential,” Rubinstein said.

Try to turn hostile comments or questions about your ability around.

“Coworkers can be resentful, especially if they’ve been picking up the slack,” Rubinstein said. Redirect them with comments such as “I know you were covering for me. Can you fill me in? I want to get back to work.”

You don’t want to be thought of as the person in the office who had cancer. When asked how you feel, admit it was tough but that you’re ready to get back to work, Rubinstein said.

Expect that people will stare at your chest and possibly ask insensitive, intrusive questions, Taylor said.

“It’s better to say nothing than to say something stupid,” she said. For example, after losing hair to cancer a person doesn’t want to hear something like, “Would you rather have hair or have cancer?”

Know your rights

If you feel like you’re being discriminated against, passed over for a promotion or not getting the same work back, know your rights and what you’re entitled to, Rubinstein said.

“Put everything in writing. Keep a paper trail,” she said.

Workers’ rights vary state to state, and sometimes state laws offer more protection than federal laws, she said.

For helpful resources, expert advice and useful tools, visit cancerandcareers.org.