Directly or indirectly, a breast cancer diagnosis affects every aspect of a person’s life. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimates that in 2015, 15,600 women and 145 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer. That’s approximately 42 women each day. Once you factor in employment statistics, that’s a significant portion of Australia’s working population.
Although not everyone who receives a cancer diagnoses will choose to continue working through treatment, many will. And for those who do, the first hurdle is telling an employer they have been diagnosed. Employees are often apprehensive about approaching management to disclose a cancer diagnosis because it might undermine employment security, says Professor Bogda Koczwara, who teaches medical oncology at Flinders University.
As with most workplace issues, open communication is the key to making sure employers and employees are getting their needs met. Keeping expectations realistic is the first step, and from there both parties can create a plan to work around any problems that might arise over the course of an individual’s treatment or after they return to work.
“Anticipate that cancer and treatment will impact an employee somehow,” says Koczwara. “Part of being realistic is taking into account what an employer needs to complete the job, and what the employee needs to fulfil those duties over the course of their treatment.”
It sounds callous to approach the issue with this mindset, but unless both parties are clear about expectations from the beginning, there is room for misunderstanding and discomfort to creep in.
“There needs to be a level of flexibility from both employer and employee,” says Professor Sanchia Aranda, CEO of Cancer Council Australia. “It’s important that senior management and HR have a position on this: Are we the kind of workplace that wants to provide a supportive environment, and at what level? There is always tension when people make assumptions, so employers need to work with an employee about what his or her return to work looks like until there is an agreed approach.”
A diagnosis reverberates through a person’s life – issues can arise immediately, but many are also ongoing. Offering flexible work arrangements and scheduling is a common solution, as many cancer patients have frequent medical appointments. Transitioning an employee to part-time work or shifting their work tasks to accommodate for side effects such as reduced mobility and fine-motor skills, or increased fatigue is another option to consider.
Aranda also recommends keeping reference materials on hand, in case an employee needs additional support that a workplace just can’t provide. This includes references for counseling, support networks or online communities, healthcare providers and information about employee rights.
One thing that should remain entirely within the employee’s control, however, is how they disclose a diagnosis to workmates. This can be done in person, through an all-staff email or perhaps not at all, says Amanda Winiata, community programs manager at Breast Cancer Network Australia.
“Take your cues from them,” she says. “Support means different things to different people. Just be direct and ask how they would like to proceed so you can be part of the solution.”
Work is often a point of stability and support, and research shows that people with cancer value staying in the workplace, says Aranda, who adds that these benefits extend beyond the financial support a work income provides – it helps people maintain a sense of ‘normalcy’ despite everything else happening in his or her life.
A supportive work environment involves more than just what is outlined between the employer and employee in an official capacity, though. Work colleagues are an important part of that equation, Koczwara says. “People don’t choose to be patients. When our work networks suddenly change or are taken away, that’s a significant loss.”
The side effects of breast cancer and treatment go beyond the physical – there are mental and emotional implications as well, many of which can be assuaged through support from colleagues and employers.
Some workplaces contribute in small ways, such as co-workers offering to help with life admin tasks, bringing in food or raising funds to help with out-of-pocket expenses.
What’s not helpful?
“Telling personal horror stories about experiences with breast cancer, or news of some cure or treatment you heard about are usually not appreciated,” Winiata says. “The ‘be positive’ message can also make it hard for someone to talk about how they are genuinely feeling.”
The best support boils down to the practical and emotional help a workplace can provide. Simply asking how a person is doing, actively listening to what they say and offering to help however possible go a long way toward making their life a little easier.
“People appreciate when others are themselves,” Winiata says. “There’s no need to tiptoe around them – they usually experience that from everyone else, and getting away from that ‘We just don’t know what to say’ mentality is one reason why they like coming back into work.”