Returning to work after bowel cancer treatment

You cannot set in stone when you will return to work after being treated for bowel cancer. Everyone’s experience will be different, and unfortunately some people may feel under financial pressure to return to work before they really feel fit enough.

If possible, agree a flexible plan with your employer where you can fit in medical appointments and treatment and possibly work flexi-hours or part time. It can give you confidence and help you return to work more easily if you can make these arrangements in advance of your cancer treatment.

You may also need to return to less physically demanding or stressful work until you are fully recovered.

The law requires your employer to take reasonable steps to accommodate your needs while you are ill. They must make ‘reasonable accommodation’ and this might be some modification to the way your work is organised including the:

  • Tasks or structure of your job or workplace; and
  • Working time arrangements.

It’s a good idea to arrange a conversation with your employer at least a couple of weeks before you plan to return to work. This will give you enough time to discuss and identify any adjustments that you need to be able to return to work.

Every person with bowel cancer is different and employers should not make assumptions about your fitness or about what reasonable adjustments will or won’t be needed.

Ask your employer to arrange a smooth return, and avoid situations where you come back to a mountain of work. Also check that your employer has told your colleagues that you are returning. If your colleagues don’t already know about the nature of your illness, it is up to you if you want them to be told. You should agree with your employer whether you tell them, or if someone else should do it.

If you feel it will be helpful, ask your union representative to help you make arrangements about sick leave and returning to work.

Case study of a bowel cancer survivor: Jim Ferris

Jim Ferris, a self-employed financial adviser, was diagnosed with bowel cancer some years ago. He was treated with radical surgery and did not need chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

He had his first surgery in the January a few weeks after being diagnosed following a colonoscopy. Jim then had a second surgery the following October; and went back to work, at first three days a week, the following May.

“I was very lucky, I didn’t have any financial difficulties, because I had critical illness insurance cover. It meant I could take two years’ out and not miss the income,” says Jim.

However, Jim now thinks that he went back to work a little too soon.

“The surgeries combined took a long time to settle. It probably took me nearly three years to recover from them. My recovery process was aided by the fact that I had an ileostomy bag. Many people dread this, but my attitude was, ‘I’m alive, without this, I wouldn’t be’. I regarded it as my best friend.

“I think a good time to think of going back to work is as soon as you have recovered from the surgery. You have to want to go back to work. It depends of course on whether it is physical work or office work.

“Confidence is very important. I used visualisation – a technique I learnt back in 1965 to help my athletic career. Right through the whole process I did visualisation twice a day for 10 minutes: seeing myself walking around normally, seeing myself better. I also used self-hypnosis, with the blessing of the hospital.

“I walked every day. And I bought a 250cc scooter as a distraction from it all. I went out on it every day for a couple of hours. While on the scooter I just had to focus on the road. I went from Dublin to Donegal on the scooter.

“You do it alone, but you need support. I had my wife and my children. And my siblings and colleagues were all there for me. They came to visit me or go for coffee with me. My dad was fantastic. Humour, however macabre, was also very helpful.

“I had a note on the hospital door which said: ‘If you’re not smiling coming in, don’t come in’. I didn’t want sympathy, I just wanted people around me who were also positive.

“I was scared, but we laughed and cried our way through it – 75% was laughter.”