TNBC and your career

TNBC and your career

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OurTNBC - Elise Sproll e1689723929339

Elise Sproll, living with TNBC

By Elise Sproll

You’ve taken years to build your career and you don’t want cancer to take that away. You know you’ll need to slow down, but you still need to pay bills. Most women decrease their workload by 50% during cancer treatment while paying their bills and out of pocket treatment expenses.1 So how can you continue your career and work after a TNBC diagnosis, while keeping stress to a minimum?

Increase flexibility & reduce workload

Cancer treatment is physically and emotionally hard. You’ll most likely find it harder to articulate yourself and get tasks done as efficiently as you once did. You might need flexibility to attend appointments and scans. You might feel too tired to work into the afternoon and you may need to slow down.

Despite your natural fears, asking for flexibility and slowing down will not impact your reputation or your career.

Elise, a 33-year-old TNBC patient said: ‘I found it hard to slow down despite my employer suggesting it. It was tough to let go when I’d worked so hard to be where I was. But I’ve now found ways to support my health while growing my career’.

Under Australian law, you may make a request to your employer for a flexible work schedule, such as work from home days or adjusting your start and end time to suit your energy levels.2  If your request is approved by your employer, this may mean you can work fewer hours, reduced number of days, or ask for extra breaks because of pain, fatigue or to attend medical appointments.

There are several types of leave options available to help balance work and treatment. The National Employment Standards outline the rules for several types of paid and unpaid leave, which apply under most awards or enterprise agreements in Australia.2

Request the ability to set your own deadlines or work independently to help you better manage your workload and schedule. Ask to customise your workload such as reducing the number of projects you work on, or the type of projects and tasks you do.

There are great resources on the Cancer Council website.3 They suggest creating a written return to work plan when you’re ready to return to work, or if you’re changing your working arrangement during treatment. A return-to-work plan is prepared by you, your doctor, and your employer outlining your approach to returning to work.


OurTNBC - acupuncture e1689723902453

Reduce stress

Despite a TNBC diagnosis being a very stressful time of your life, the more you can reduce your stress levels, the better you will feel overall. Be kind to yourself. You won’t be able to do everything you once could. You may not feel as energetic, positive, or determined. Some days you won’t be able to work. Try not to resent yourself. Accept that your body is trying to heal.

Start your day slow. Take regular breaks during your day and get out in nature, even if all you manage is a slow walk. Read a book or listen to music. Find something each day that makes you smile.

Rest is critical for our body to repair itself. Sleeping well can be hard during chemo, so try to avoid caffeine after noon, wind down with meditation at night, keep electronics in another room, and wear an eye mask and earplugs to keep your room dark and quiet.

Meditation isn’t necessarily about quietening your mind, it can help you calm down, connect with your body, and listen to what it needs. Meditation apps, such as Insight Timer have guided affirmations, breathing, and visualisation meditations. Complementary therapies like acupuncture, oncology massage and infra-red saunas can help you relax, have time to yourself and help your body heal.4


OurTNBC - meditation e1689723991470

Set boundaries & re-prioritise what’s important.

Even if you don’t usually think about boundaries, they are crucial during cancer. No one has their usual energy, tolerance, or patience during treatment. Maintaining good relationships with family, friends, and work colleagues may take more thought than usual. The most important rule is to take the best possible care of yourself in all circumstances.5

Think about how much information you want to share, be comfortable saying no or cancelling last minute, and limit what you take on.

For Elise, setting boundaries meant reducing hours, moving into a new team, and scheduling time off before and after scans to manage her anxiety.

Use some of your downtime to reflect on what’s important to you. If you find yourself doing things that feel meaningless or unenjoyable at work, perhaps it’s time to stop. Reflect on your career. Do you work with people you like and respect? How about the organisation you work for? If you could, what would you change? Think about your workday. Which routines help and which drain you?

If you could bring more of what you love into each day, what would that be? Find what you’re interested in and do more of it.
If there’s one thing that comes with a cancer diagnosis, it’s the permission to put yourself first and change your life.


1. Financial impacts of breast cancer in Australia Breast Cancer Network Australia November 2016
2. Cancer, Work & You (
3. Making a Return to Work Plan | Cancer, Work & You | Cancer Council NSW
4. Complementary and alternative medicines and therapies | Breast Cancer Network Australia (
5. Coping with Cancer by Setting Boundaries | BIDMC of Boston

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Glossary of Key Terms

These are explanations of terms that medical professionals and others may use when discussing your TNBC.

Advanced breast cancer

A commonly used term for secondary, metastatic or stage 4 breast cancer

Adjuvant therapy/treatment

Treatment (e.g. chemotherapy) given after surgery.


Hair loss


The area around the nipple

Axillary dissection/clearance

The removal of some or all of the lymph nodes from the armpit to see if the breast cancer has spread beyond the breast.


Not cancerous


The removal of cells or tissue from the body to see if they are cancer cells


Women with a fault, or mutation, in one of these genes have a higher than normal chance of developing breast or ovarian cancer

Breast conserving surgery

Surgery to remove breast cancer and a small area of healthy tissue around the cancer. Also known as lumpectomy.


Treatment for cancer using drugs

Clinical trials

Studies involving patients to see if a new treatment is better than an existing one

Complementary medicines

Complementary medicines are products that are used in addition to conventional medical treatments (e.g. chemotherapy and hormone therapies). Complementary medicines include vitamin and mineral supplements, such as fish oil capsules or vitamin D tablets, and herbal medicines.

Complementary therapies

Complementary therapies are practices that are used in addition to conventional medical treatments (e.g. chemotherapy and hormone therapies).Some examples of complementary therapies often used by women with breast cancer include massage, yoga, acupuncture and reflexology.

Double mastectomy

Removal of both breasts during breast cancer surgery

Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS)

Non-invasive breast cancer confined to the ducts of the breast

Early breast cancer

Breast cancer that has not spread beyond the breast or lymph nodes under the arm

Early menopause

Menopause occurring in women under 45 years of age. Early menopause is often a side effect of some common treatments for breast cancer.

Lymph nodes

Glands in the armpit and other parts of the body that filter and drain lymph fluid, trapping bacteria, cancer cells and any other particles that could be harmful to the body


A condition that sometimes develops when lymph nodes have been removed during breast cancer surgery and the lymph fluid no longer drains freely, causing swelling in the arm, hand or breast


Another name for breast conserving surgery


The removal of the whole breast during breast cancer surgery

Metastatic breast cancer

Another term for secondary, advanced, or stage 4 breast cancer

Multidisciplinary Team

Often abbreviated to MDT. A team of health professionals who work together to manage a patient’s treatment and care

Neoadjuvant chemotherapy

Chemotherapy treatment given before breast cancer surgery (sometimes used to reduce the size of the tumour to make it easier for the surgeon to operate)


A type of female hormone

Partial mastectomy

Another term for breast conserving surgery

PBS (Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme)

A scheme funded by the Australian Government to subsidise the cost of certain drugs for eligible consumers


A type of female hormone


Treatment for cancer using X-rays that target a particular area of the body

Secondary breast cancer

Breast cancer that has spread from the breast to other, more distant parts of the body, most commonly the bones, lungs, liver and sometimes the brain. Also known as advanced, metastatic, or stage 4 breast cancer.

Sentinel node biopsy

identification and removal of the first lymph node to which the breast cancer may have spread for testing by a pathologist


Fluid that collects in or around a scar after surgery

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