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iCanWork: Steps to return to work for Cancer Survivors

iCanWork: Steps to return to work for Cancer Survivors

Ms. Maureen Parkinson, Vocational Rehabilitation Counsellor, M.Ed. C.C.R.C, BC Cancer

Ms. Maureen Parkinson is the province-wide vocational rehabilitation counsellor at the BC Cancer Agency. She has also been vocational rehabilitation counsellor at a public rehabilitation hospital and vocational rehabilitation consultant to insurance companies and the court system. She has instructed and facilitated Service-Canada-funded programs on job searching and career exploration. Ms. Parkinson has a Masters in Counselling Psychology, is a Canadian Certified Rehabilitation Counsellor, and completed the Certified Return to Work Coordinator Program through the National Institute for Disability Management and Research. She has developed return-to-work and job-search seminars for cancer patients and created the guidebook “Cancer and Returning to Work: A Practical Guide for Cancer Patients” as well as on-line articles about returning to work and school. She also co-authored a paper commissioned by the Canadian Association of Psychosocial Oncology, “Cancer and Work: A Canadian Perspective”.

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Dr. Christine Maheu, RN, PhD

Dr. Christine Maheu is an Associate Professor in the Ingram School of Nursing, Faculty of Medicine, McGill University. Dr. Maheu is also an Affiliate Scientist at the University Health Network and the University of Toronto. At McGill University, she teaches research methods, supervises graduate students (masters, doctoral, post-doctoral), mentors practicing nurses and students in research, and conducts research in English and French. She has held research awards with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Canadian Cancer Society, and the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer. These awards funded her research in psychosocial oncology, which focuses on developing and testing psychosocial interventions or measurements tools for various cancer populations. Additionally, in partnership with Ipsos Canada and funded by the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, she is co-leading a nationwide survey of the needs of cancer patients for transition care from the end of their treatment to three years after their diagnosis. Dr. Maheu received awards for excellence in nursing research (2013, 2015, 2016) from Ovarian Cancer Canada, the Canadian Association of Nurses in Oncology, and the Quebec Association of Nurses in Oncology.

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There are various steps you can take to return to work. They involve assessing what can hinder (barriers) or make easier (facilitators) your return to work. In these steps, you will also find ways you can evaluate your abilities when it comes to doing your job, and find and utilize the resources available to you to help you with a successful return to work.

The iCanWork program is a 10-step program you can use to guide you while planning your return to work. While the steps are designed to help return to a former workplace, many of them can also help those looking for a new job. For more information on finding a job, see Changing jobs looking for work.

Note that some steps can overlap, other can be followed simultaneously or can be done in a different order to address your unique needs and situation.



Communication is involved in all the steps of iCanWork. Communication about return to work begins early and often with your healthcare providers, employer and your insurance provider in order to ensure that your concerns are addressed and ensure a smooth transition back to work. See below for other tips or see Communication and teamwork.

Communicating the factors that can impact your return to work (Step 1), your challenges with your functions (Step 2) in respect to your job demands (Step 3) with your health care providers can give them a comprehensive understanding of your situation and concerns. It may be helpful to ask your healthcare provider on how your cancer and its treatment may affect your work abilities, to help decide whether you can stay or return to work, or the need to look at alternative work, or apply for disability or sick leave (if these are available), or stop working. For ideas on questions that need to be addressed, see Communicating with healthcare workers. Discussing work-related abilities and concerns also provides an opportunity for healthcare providers to initiate and discuss interventions to improve work readiness (See step 4).

In many cases, employers and disability insurance providers rely on physicians to provide opinions on whether a survivor can presently work, whether they should stay on benefits (if available), when or if they can return to work, and if any restrictions and limitations will be needed to accommodate. Oncologists are also often called upon by employers and disability insurers to give their opinion on a patient’s current work abilities because of their clinical experience with specific cancer treatments. Oncologists opinion is especially important in cases when treatments have changed and there is no research yet to inform how it may impact work-related functions. Often when survivors finish treatment, insurance case managers will call them more often to assess readiness for return to work. For more information on how to better communicate with insurance providers, see the Cancer and Work section on Communicating with insurance providers.

There may be expectations and advantages to communicating with your workplace during your diagnosis, treatment, and during your planning for return to work. This open communication can give the employer time to arrange for support at the workplace to improve your success with returning and staying at work safely. Also, it may be helpful to consider how you are going to stay in contact with your colleagues and what you are going to tell them about your cancer.  For more information see Communicating with your workplace.