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Living Now: Going back to work

Doctors usually suggest allogeneic transplant recipients wait at least 1 year after transplant to go back to work. That’s because it takes 9 to 12 months for your immune system to recover. When, or if, you return to work after transplant should be up to you and your doctor.

When you do head back to work, you may feel a lot of emotions. Excitement about seeing friends or co-workers again, nervousness about how people will react, concern about “keeping up.” We have tips on how to ease yourself back into the working world.

Dealing with an “employment gap”

Because you didn’t work during your transplant recovery, your résumé will show a length of time when you were not employed. This can be difficult to discuss during a job interview.Federal law prohibits your health history from being used against you when you return to work or look for a new job. If you’re looking for a new job, companies can’t ask about your health history and you aren’t required to tell them about it unless you choose to do so.

Still, it can be a difficult decision. Karen, a transplant recipient, has struggled with what to say during interviews. Would her story of recovery show strength and how she had overcome so many obstacles?

Karen chose to fill the gap in her employment by highlighting her volunteer work─and in fact put that at the top of her resume. “There are keywords that say ‘volunteer work’,” says Karen. “It’s what I’m doing, it’s where my skills are at, and it’s my experience.”

Preparing for physical and emotional demands in the workplace

It can be physically and emotionally difficult to return to work after an extended leave after transplant.

“Work is demanding and patients often worry about whether they will be able to respond to the pace and requirements,” says Katie Schoeppner, MSW, LICSW, and Director of the Be The Match® Patient Services. “Many patients describe symptoms of ‘chemo-brain’ that can affect short-term memory or make it hard to organize thoughts.”

To help manage those issues, Katie recommends “coping ahead of time” by thinking of situations or aspects of work that may be difficult and prepare for them. “For instance, come up with a plan for setting reminders (post-it notes, a calendar, an alarm) if you’re concerned about managing a lot of demands,” she says.

For Herschel, a transplant recipient who returned to his previous job, it was important to take things slowly at first. “When you return to work, you need to take your time,” he says. “You don’t have to impress anyone. Give yourself permission to take it easy, and one day, you’ll begin to see that you’re accomplishing tasks in a very real and effective way.”

Katie also has suggestions on how to tactfully deal with co-workers who may ask a lot of unwanted questions about your disease and treatment. As part of a “coping ahead” strategy, Katie recommends that you think about the kinds of questions you may be asked about your time away. “Then, come up with an ‘elevator speech’ that you can use to move quickly through those conversations,” she says.

Benefits of returning to work

For many people, work not only provides financial stability, it also gives a sense of purpose, identity and belonging.

This was especially true for Karen. At her first job after her transplant, she says that it felt so good just to get up and shower and have a place to go. “It’s a first step,” she says. “If it takes baby steps, one day at a time, get out there as soon as you can before you get seized by paralysis.”

Work provides structure to our days, plus social interaction that plays a major role in a person’s self-esteem. “It speaks to identity,” says Karen.

When work seems out of reach

Even if you want to go back to work, it’s not always easy to find the right job for you. Karen says “before transplant, I had a sense of pride in my work. Now, people don’t see that side of me or that my skin is covered with GVHD. They don’t know my story.”

If you’re struggling to find work after BMT, Katie recommends “seeking out volunteer and networking opportunities in their community.” They can be a great way to build up a resume and open doors to possible employment.

Sometimes life after transplant can be an opportunity to consider a new type of work. Take stock of your relationships and values—think through what and who is most important to you now. Use that list to guide how you spend your time. “Then, consider doing some informational interviews with people in jobs that seem interesting to you,” says Katie.

For Karen, the experience of illness, treatment and recovery has changed her focus of what she wants to do. “I feel drawn to non-profit and service-oriented jobs.”

Before you return to work

  • Contact your human resources (HR) department and your supervisor, shop steward or union representative.
  • Discuss any special needs and ask for any changes that would make it easier for you to keep your job (e.g., flexible hours, regularly scheduled breaks, working from home, or special equipment).
  • Work out clear expectations about your schedule and workload.
  • Keep a record of each request and the response.
  • Consider asking your employer to tell your co-workers about your situation. Make sure you’re comfortable with the information and how they’ll share it.
  • Talk to your HR department about your health insurance benefits. There are laws, including HIPAA and COBRA, which protect your health insurance benefits if you had health insurance before your leave.

Remember, your health history can’t be used against you when you return to work or look for a new job. And, if you’re looking for a new job, companies can’t ask about your health history and you aren’t required to tell them about it unless you choose to do so.

Social Security benefits

  • Talk to your Social Security plan administrator about how returning to work may affect your benefits.
  • Look into the resources through the Social Security Administration (SSA) that could help you get back to work, like a trial work period. A trial work period lets you test your ability to work and still get Social Security benefits for up to 9 months, with more help after the trial period if needed.
  • To learn more, go to or call (800) 772-1213.