Easing into a new normal after breast cancer treatment presents many challenges, between lingering health issues, financial stress, and the impact such an experience can have on mental health. How does work play into this? A new study out of Germany finds that post-breast cancer, many women experience changes in the office.
A team of researchers from the University of Bonn and the German Cancer Society looked at how satisfied breast cancer survivors were with their career development five to six years after diagnosis. More than half said they’d had changes at work at least once, with about 16% of those changes involuntary. The results were published in the Journal of Cancer Survivorship.
Sociologist Kati Hiltrop from the Research Center for Health Communication and Health Services Research at the University Hospital Bonn says, “The main result is that we did not find a connection between the number of professional changes and satisfaction, but a higher involuntary change was associated with lower satisfaction. The results indicate that the quality of the changes counts more than the quantity.”
To conduct the study, 184 women were interviewed about their work life post-breast cancer. One-hundred-five of the participants had experienced 410 job changes within the first five or six years after diagnosis, with just over 16% of the changes not by choice. Some of those forced changes included an increased work load, an increased scope of work, or retirement. Other changes included decreased hours, decreased payment, and decreased workload. Researchers say their findings indicate that many women have a hard time meeting expectations when they return to work, which could be due to the lingering mental and physical impacts of treatment.
In terms of what led to job satisfaction, it was important for survivors to have long-term support from employers who recognized what they were experiencing, both in the near and long-term picture.
Hiltrop explains, “Providing a welcoming work environment and showing patients understanding and support can facilitate a satisfactory return to work.”
She adds that many women have to navigate follow-up care, lingering fatigue, and the fear of a tumor recurrence. This means that understanding from their employers needs to continue, not just be present when they first return.
Researchers say another takeaway from the study is that employers need to be more flexible and to understand how much the employee is capable of at a given time.
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Hiltrop says, “Open communication with managers and colleagues about expectations and what can be accomplished is very important.”
The survey found that the highest satisfaction in workers was associated with higher age, better perceived health, and more voluntary changes. It’s also noted that fewer than 20% of participants had experienced a recurrence by the five or six-year post-diagnosis mark.
Nearly 70,000 Germans are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, and it is the most common form of female cancer in the country. Fortunately, nearly 90% reach the five-year survival mark.