Just over two years ago, I was tying up loose ends at the office, passing off my work and leaving everything behind to start my fight against breast cancer and focus on my healing. I naively thought I would be back within 6 months but as many now, things don’t always go as planned through a cancer diagnosis. Insert multiple surgeries, treatments and the lingering side effects of treatment, and I ended up off much longer than anticipated. Now, 2 years, 3 months and 3 days later, I’m heading back to work for the first time and feeling anxious but excited at the same time.
Since being off for so long, I recently finished a work conditioning program to help with a successful transition back to work and have been asked a lot of questions about it. What it is, who the program is through, etc. So, I thought I’d share a little on the blog today about what these last couple months have been like and how I’m feeling as I take the next step towards my healing and recovery as I return to work tomorrow.
Work Conditioning Program
At the end of June, I began something called a work conditioning program, an 8 week graduated program funded by my long term disability insurance provider. Since I was still struggling so much with fatigue, insomnia, concentration, and memory issues as well as some physical limitations with reaching and stretching, the goal was to improve my mental and physical stamina to successfully return me back to work. The program consisted of one hour of physio and occupational therapy twice a week which gradually increased in time and frequency and 1 session of return to work counselling per week.
The first day of my program, I was given a binder with the exercises that I would be doing over the next few weeks and shown how to do each one step by step. My exercises consisted of:
- 10 minutes interval training on treadmill
- 10 dowel passovers
- 4 plank holds with alternating leg lifts
- 4 dead bug holds
- 4 scapular rotations
- 10 rotational cable push
- 8 single dumbbell overhead press
- 10 reverse lunges
- Stretching exercises – 30 second hold for each
- 15 minutes of mental exercises to simulate work activities such as typing, reading, summarizing research papers, etc.
During the first week, I was struggling hard with fatigue and insomnia and it took everything in me to get up each morning. I was having a difficult time staying asleep and was waking up anywhere between 20-30 times a night. I found myself torn between wanting to give it my all to be successful in the program and pushing myself too hard. It felt like a constant push trying to get through each breath, each exercise. And when I got home, I would feel the weight of the exhaustion and find myself stuck lying on the couch for hours. But no matter how physically and mentally exhausted I was, I just could not sleep. It felt like I had hit a wall with my medication and it wasn’t backing down. It was frustrating to say the least. To start the program off this way but this was the reality of my problems.
I spoke with my return to work counsellor and we focused the first 3 sessions going through techniques to help manage my biggest roadblock through all this, insomnia. I had already tried melatonin, magnesium, good sleep hygiene practices, deep breathing and countless other techniques but I was willing to do whatever it took to get it under control. One of my biggest problems was waking up and looking at the clock every time so I began turning it around and using other techniques such as visualization and meditation. To be completely honest though, the insomnia and other side effects from hormone therapy medication have always come in waves and I haven’t found one cure all that has helped me improve my sleep at this point. I still use the relaxation techniques to calm my nerves when I’m lying in bed and feel the frustration and anxiety bubble up when I can’t sleep, but I’m still trying other complementary therapies (including CBD oil) in the hopes of finding a good combo that works for me.
Once I reached about the second or third week, I found myself starting to improve physically. I was able to get most of the exercises done and began asking for more to be added on, but my mental stamina was seeing less improvement. Although I was doing some mental tasks during the program, I found there wasn’t enough work simulation in that aspect and began focusing more time at home writing. I had hit a wall in the previous months and found that every time I tried to write, my brain would shut down after about 5 minutes. Yet I would continue to sit at the computer staring at the screen hoping the words would appear but instead became frustrated and upset that I couldn’t do more. My counsellor suggested that I keep track of when I begin to shut down and write until a minute or two before instead, take a break, switch my brain to something else and then return so I’m not reaching that point of complete meltdown. Even as I write this now, I’ve had to take 5 breaks in between. And with it had to learn a lot of kindness and patience with myself.
As I began to increase my days in the program though my energy levels took a nose dive again and I found myself struggling with fatigue and insomnia once again. Although at this point, I was trying to stay at the program for 4 hours a day, I couldn’t muster the energy to stay anymore than 3. I spoke with my doctors and the team at the health centre about my struggle between wanting to do whatever it took to be successful in the program but also not wanting to crash and burn in doing so. It felt like I was walking a thin line trying to find that balance. I wanted to be ready to return to work at this point but my counselor and I had barely scratched the surface and I knew deep down I needed more time. It wasn’t only fair to me but it was fair to my work that I be realistic about where I stood.
The last part of my program was really about focusing on scenarios that I may face upon my return and how to manage them. One of the biggest ones being brain fog. I work as a human resources advisor for the health authority and spend most of my days either in meetings with the managers and directors I support or reading through countless collective agreement and employment language. Most times I’m expected to be on my game and give an answer at the drop of a hat. But nowadays, there are times mid sentence where I draw a complete blank like someone has suddenly thrown a dark blanket over my mind. Cue the frustration, the anxiety, the hot flashes that start piling on as a result and I end up crumbling inwards. To manage this, I’ve had to learn to take on one task at a time, prepare a list and write notes for everything, and have the confidence to say no at times and to stop being a people pleaser all the time. It’s not always easy especially in a competitive field but my health is so much more important these days than anything.
As I head back to work tomorrow, I am going in with an open mind and an open heart. Knowing that I am not going to be superwoman all the time and instead focusing on what I CAN do versus what I COULD do or what I SHOULD do. Not about who I was before. But about this girl today who is fierce, strong and determined to rise!