Back to work during/after chemo

Posted on 16 October 2015

Starting work again after chemotherapy or while undergoing it needn’t be a mental obstacle course. Here’s how you can cope – or help a colleague in this situation.

‘Chemo brain’ affects 20-30% of people undergoing chemotherapy and is characterised by changes in cognitive abilities, including memory and concentration loss, having trouble remembering names or common words, and not being as quick-witted as you were before. Follow these tips to ease back into your work environment:

1. Identify any sources of stress and try to eliminate or reduce it – for instance, a colleague’s loud radio or constant chatter by your desk. Deep breathing can also help to reduce stress.
2. Minimise your exposure to toxins – from sitting next to an open window that lets in pollution to handling toxic or potentially dangerous materials.
3. Making a simple to-do list can help with concentration issues. Only tackle one priority at a time and don’t focus on the rest. Don’t try to be a master multi-tasker.
4. Use apps and features to jog your memory – calendar reminders, sticky notes and alarms can all help you remember meetings or deadlines.
5. Declutter your workspace. Keep a tidy desk and turn off your email and internet while working to minimise distractions that hamper your concentration. You can even have set hours for answering emails – set up an auto-reply letting people know when you’ll be replying to their mails.
6. Try to scale back on your workload, eat a nutritious, balanced diet and take daily mild exercise – why not use your lunch hour to stroll around a local park? And try to take the stairs instead of the elevator.
7. Avoid greasy, salty, fried or spicy food to help curb nausea and vomiting.
8. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from your colleagues – ask a work friend to help prompt you when she notices you can’t remember a name, schedule or details. Don’t let them do the work for you, because you need retrain your brain to remember; instead, let them help you trace the steps if you have difficulty remembering your daily tasks.
9. Interact with your colleagues – talking and thinking is good recovery for the brain.

My colleague is going through chemo – how can I help?
1. Don’t ignore the situation, but take your cues from your colleague – if they don’t want to talk about it, don’t prod and pry. Be genuine and heartfelt in your comments; ask them how they are doing and how you can help. Avoid well-meaning but patronising comments – such as ‘Just stay positive!’ – that could make your colleague feel as if their very real fears and concerns are not legitimate.
2. Offer help in concrete ways, listen when they want to talk, and continue including them in projects or social events, unless they tell you the load is too much right now.
3. Give compliments when they’re looking good, but refrain from pointing out when they’re not looking well – ‘you look pale’ or ‘you’ve lost weight’, for instance.
4. Remember, each cancer story is different and your cousin’s child’s best friend’s father’s cancer tale might not be helpful to your colleague. Rather let them know you are available to talk or listen and let them take the conversation from there.
5. Above all, keep your relationship normal, show patience and compassion, and keep your colleague’s confidentiality – do not discuss their treatment or symptoms with anyone without their permission.



The information provided in this article was correct at the time of publishing. At Mediclinic we endeavour to provide our patients and readers with accurate and reliable information, which is why we continually review and update our content. However, due to the dynamic nature of clinical information and medicine, some information may from time to time become outdated prior to revision.

Published in Cancer

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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