Back to Work After Mastectomy: Too Soon?

They say you can return to work 6-8 weeks after a double mastectomy… They say! Just a few weeks after my amputation as I describe it, the day my cancer was FINALLY cut out of my body and my two beloved boobies that tried to kill me also found their new home in an incinerator of some sort! Can you believe it, only about a month and a half- two months to recover from all of that, and then there are some orthopedic surgeries take 3-6 months for recovery!  Its so shocking!

When I went out on leave from my job as an Occupational Therapist, I was in constant contact with my boss and director of rehab and we were all under the assumption that just like the doctors were telling me, I’d be good as new in 6 weeks. Here is the problem with doctors coming up with these prospective “ranges” of recovery, it sort of gives a patient a presumption that they “should” be better by that date.  This can be a good thing or a bad thing dependent upon the patient, however for me…this was BAD BAD BAD!

Though everyone heals and recovers at their own speed, I am here to tell all those doctors and professionals out there who make up  this 6-8 week range for return to work are WRONG!!!! Though some with more sedentary job descriptions may in fact be able to return without a problem, my dilemma was the fact that I lift people for a living. I am teaching people the skills they need to be independent in one of their sickest states (acute care or while they are in the hospital).  A lot of times, my patients need help to stand, assistance to ambulate and perhaps training to use a new device like a walker or care, help to get in and out of a tub or shower, a boost on or off a toilet, equipment to put on or take off their socks or shoes, oh and I almost forget about managing the patient and their IV poles and their oxygen lines sometimes all while observing the level of assistance they need, coming up with a discharge plan and what services the patient could benefit from to live a healthy, happy, and safe life after leaving the hospital! How can I return to my job of helping people if I need help my self?

The date of my six weeks out of work was quickly approaching and the stress and pressure of my company was practically causing me anxiety. The week before my anticipated return to work I was reaching out to my physical therapist, oncologist, plastic surgeon, and surgical oncologist for someone to provide me the answer.  Am I ready to return to work.  I literally felt like I was caught in the movie the Labyrinth. It felt to me that not one doctor wanted to take responsibility for saying “Yes Meghan you are healed and nothing will happen to you if you return to work”.  It went from, “well what do you want”, “how do you feel” or my favorite/ the one that pissed me off the worst”just tell me what you want me to write”.  I could only imagine what a patient that didn’t work in the healthcare system would do if these were the type of answers they received from people who were supposed to be guiding their care.

I remember sitting with my phone in my hand and just crying because I felt like no-one was listening to me.  On one hand I had work asking questions and wondering when Id be returning, I had doctors saying at 6 weeks you can return, I had my physical therapist saying how in the world are you going to go back to work if your only lifting 2 lb weights, and I myself was questioning my abilities and comfort and fear of hurting myself.  I remember going to my plastic surgeon who ultimately  my doctors said was responsible for my return to work paperwork and I asked straight out, “do I have any restrictions”, of which his response was “not really, you just can’t  like lift anyone or pull up because your at a risk of tearing your pec”.  Okay lets think about this once again, I AM AN OCCUPATIONAL THERAPIST, LIFTING PEOPLE ISSSS MY JOB! Grrrrr…

It wasn’t until I met with my lymphedema therapist the day before I was due to return to work that she explained to me the risk of heavy lifting on my chance of getting lymphedema.  She had a resident observing out session who coincidently was in the OR for my mastectomy and lymph node removal who FINALLY explained to me exactly why I am still tender around my rib cage and the reason for discomfort in my chest.  She informed me that I would feel discomfort for about 6 weeks after my last expander fill— at this time that was only 2 weeks away! FINALLY I had an answer, I was not ready to return back to my highly physical job.

I decided to delay my return to work another 4 weeks to allow my skin and tissue heal a little more, and then I began radiation.  My radiation oncologist is very in tuned with  my work and decided that I should be out until I see if I have any significant symptoms from my daily radiation sessions.  At 12 weeks out from my double mastectomy I decided I would be ready to give it a try.

 My job ever so graciously approved my accommodation for a limited work schedule so I would be able to make it to the hospital for my afternoon radiation sessions, and I thought I’d definitely be able to tolerate 20-30 hrs/ week— ~6 hours of work a day until the conclusion of radiation.  I started working after the holiday weekend on July 5th.

A few days short of 12 weeks out of surgery, much longer and thicker curly blonde hair on my head from my last return to work after chemo, and the drive to not let anyone down… I was sooooooooo beyond words anxious and nervous about my first day back.  I woke up that morning, put on my makeup, searched for my scrubs, and was ready to share my experience of being a patient with my patients!  I was excited to see my co-workers although many of the staff are new and I feel sort of odd amongst staff that don’t really know me, know the type of therapist I am, and sort of respect me for being a therapist for years now and not being a new grad. It sort of hurts me that I haven’t been able to work for many months, I don’t have “my floor” anymore, Im not on any certain committees amongst my peers, I haven’t had a student in forever, and I guess I feel a little left out because of all i’ve been through.

What I am so blessed about my job and where I work are how absolutely amazing the management has been to keep my job and welcome me with accommodations.  Those that I am close to opened me with open arms,and even those I wasn’t “close to” asked how I was doing.  The first day started off with a bang as my boss left me my assigned floor with a note to call her when I got in.  WELCOME BACK MEGHAN, YOUR IN THE ICU TODAY! It was sorta funny to me I guess, not that I couldn’t handle the ICU, but typically these are your most involved, heavier patients, I just never expected that on my very 1st day back thats where I’d be placed.

I made my way down to the ICU, logged on the computer, made my patient list, and rounded with the nurses.  My first patient of the day was a man with a new diagnosis of lung cancer.  I felt like I was put into the ICU that day for a reason! I was able to connect with him, answer questions, and decrease some of his anxiety towards his plan for chemo because i’ve been there!  I went through that fear, and I first handedly knew what to expect! It was in that moment that I realized, I am now an Occupational Therapist that has first hand patient experience that will in the end help my patients!

After a few sponge baths, trips to the bathroom, and playing with some long handled adaptive equipment.  Four patients later, 2 evaluation and 2 treatment sessions and my 6 hour work day was coming to an end.  WOW IM SLOW!  Was all I could think.  Going from working 8 hour days and seeing around 11 patients to seeing a measly 4 patients, it was depressing.  I kinda felt defeated in a way, like I was going to let the staff down… but I couldn’t be too hard on myself, it was my first day back— I had meetings with management, and had some competency tests to take.  I had to head straight to radiation, and as I was walking to my car exhaustion hit.  I sat into my stuffy car, put the windows down and realized how tired and heavy my body felt.

I got to radiation and passed out on the table for the whole 15 minute treatment session I underwent.  It was torture driving home and I went straight to bed.  6am when my alarm starting ringing the next day felt like torture.  My body was like it was strapped with a ton of weights, could this be what they say “fatigue” is?  I was at radiation session 20/30, and up until now, radiation had been a breeze.  I worked my 2nd, 3rd, and 4th day at work and had a melt down. I cried everyday driving to radiation and fell asleep right after I got home.  My body ached, I was getting more migraines, my chest skin began to feel tight and tingling… maybe I returned to work to soon?

 I had my weekly doctors appointment with my radiation oncologist (who coincidently was out on vacation but my normal nurse Scott was there alongside the fill-in physician) and lost it. Again, he passed me a box of tissues as I turned into a weeping willow. The stress of the week, my physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion just all seemed to be soilling out as I mumbled out the answers to his questions as drippy tears of salt ran into my mouth. Basically I was the definition of a hot mess! The substitute doctor came in, checked my skin, and explained that he wasnt sure I am quite ready to be working such a strenous job.

In a matter of minutes, I found myself with yet another script writing me out of work:(. To some this would be a day for a party or celebration, for me… I literally felt like a loser. This is one of the worst feelings of this journey that I was yet to experience because I feel like a straight loser. I feel defeated, upset, and sort of lost. It just really really sucks to be 27 years old and not be able to physically do something you should in essence be able to do! Its just upsetting… Oh well, 2 more weeks of radiation and I am doneso! Cancer Free at last and completely ready to start my life… Again!

Xoxo Meg



11 thoughts on “Back to Work After Mastectomy: Too Soon?

  1. I had my mastectomy 5 years ago, went to work after 1 year but that is much too soon also. Had another 4 surgery’s and even now I’m always tired.


  2. You are in no way a loser. Hang in there, love your self up as much as possible. I still find it to be difficult sometimes to acknowledge what my after treatment limitations are, until my body reminds me. I am two and a half years out from the end of treatments. I ended up switching jobs, because my new body just could not hack my life as a pastry/bread baker.
    Everyone has their own timeline.


      • For me it was also about baker’s hours. I was ready to stop setting my alarm for 2:50 a.m. Also repetitive motion + heavy lifting + very hot humid conditions + risk of frequent burns + 12 hour shifts, all added up to just too many risk factors, as I was already having problems with Lymphedema.
        I mostly wanted to acknowledge the emotional work you are doing while you are healing. And that it can be soooo frustrating! To encourage you to take as long as you need to heal, and to reassure you that even if things change a lot life can be wonderful on the flip side of where you are right now.
        Having your body remodeled is a big deal, and the body has truly amazing healing powers.
        Sending love and light from across the blogosphere
        Xo Iris


  3. Excellent article Meghan. I can totally relate. I don’t want to admit that I may not be able to return to work when I thought I could. I told my surgeon I want to be released ASAP. Well…My surgery this past Tuesday,July 19, which was a revision of the surgery on June 28th included a local flap to promote wound healing. As a COTA/L (OT assistant), I can also relate to the responsibilities of the job. I know the physical and mental demands and I also want to provide the utmost professional and comprehensive care to all my patients! That’s why I went into health care. During my recovery, I have a lot of decisions to make. I’ve been practicing since 1984. I love my job. I pray daily for strength and guidance for myself and my all those walking this journey with me. Thanks so much Meghan!! You definitely should not feel less than the amazing person you are. You may feel like you are not doing your job as you would like but you are definitely providing much needed care and education to all cancer survivors, fighters, Warriors who continue to Sparkle On!!! Sandra Kulick Sent from my iPhone



  4. BRAVO to you for all your effort! I ‘only’ had a lumpectomy and radiation in May of 2014. I work retail and have a physically demanding job most days of my part time job. I am able to function just fine but when I am tired.. I surrender and nap or go to bed! I chalk it up to ‘old age’ but just maybe it is BC side effects.

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  5. I can completely relate! The way you describe your first days back at work was pretty much the way I would describe my last year of work before my neurologist finally ordered me to stop working! It truly does feel defeating, but you must remind yourself that not only are you putting yourself at risk but you are also putting your patients at risk! I hope you can find the peace that you need during this time as you transition and seek the next steps… Be strong and draw on the inner occupational therapy strength that you have. I myself know that is part of the reason I have been able to deal with my transition the way that I have. Had it not been for my inner occupational therapy strength, I don’t think I would be doing as well as I am!


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