Q: I recently finished cancer treatment, and it’s time to return to work. I’m a successful finance manager, but now work has no meaning for me. I need the income, but I just don’t care about “getting ahead” anymore.What should I do?
Right now, it’s completely normal for you to be flooded with emotions and doubt. Profound life events like a cancer diagnosis and treatment often make us look at our existence through a fresh lens. This can change our priorities, and impact our relationships and work.
I’ve seen people leave successful careers after surviving cancer, change friendships and hobbies, and even end marriages. A diagnosis like cancer can really alter your life barometer. And that can be a good thing.
Because you say that you need the income from your work, I suggest that you brace yourself for what is likely to be a challenging return to work after your cancer treatment. But this can be an opportunity to strengthen your resilience, much in the same way that hurting your muscles in the gym makes them stronger in the long run.
Some people I’ve talked with after significant emotional experiences said they didn’t want to go back to work afterwards, but it ended up being the best thing they ever did. Work creates normalcy. You are accomplishing tasks at work instead of sitting at home in unproductive sadness. You can then apply that sense of accomplishment to other areas of your life.
Returning to work after cancer is an opportunity to embrace structure and accountability that is not health-focused or life-and-death thinking. There is emotional safety in structure that allows us to build more resilience in our thinking and in our actions.
Being in a work environment also creates connection, and connection is incredibly important for effective socialization, talking, identifying and articulating your emotions.
Sharing physical space with others can be really cathartic. For example, a shared joke can make you laugh, and you remember what it’s like to feel lighthearted. Or seeing someone else being celebrated for an accomplishment at work connects you with the joy of others.
Give yourself some space as you return to work after your cancer treatment. If you feel overwhelmed at work, you are at a time when going home early may be acceptable. Don’t go from cold to hot if you can avoid it. This may be a process; give yourself some time and space for that.
So, go back to work and create some normalcy for yourself. Then, 30 to 60 days in, re-evaluate where you are with your work now.
Before your cancer diagnosis, you were maybe letting life just “happen.” But now you have the potential to examine your life more closely and shake out what’s really important to you now. This gives you the chance to create a purpose-driven life, letting go of what doesn’t matter to you anymore, and pursuing what does.
Is it time for a new job? For a year of travel or volunteering? Do you need a meaningful new hobby? These are all options to consider as you find your new normal. Keeping your existing job can give you a solid base as you move toward a new goal.
I suggest taking your time, and not making any sudden decisions. You are still grieving how your life has changed after the diagnosis, and grief is a part of figuring out what your new life looks and feels like. It’s ok to “figure things out” for a while during this time, before making any big changes.
Overall, I would invite you to think of returning to work after cancer as an opportunity for growth. Resilience isn’t forged through life’s beautiful moments. It’s forged through devastating times, when we find the grit and determination to keep moving.
Now, you have the gift of a powerful new perspective. You are able to look at your job, your relationships and your life very differently, because you recognize that it could all end in a moment. Use this time to dig down and make sure that you are connecting with the things you want, that are good for you, and that you feel connected to.