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Breast Cancer Survivors: No Job Discrimination

Women Face Few Bad Working Conditions, Study Shows
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WebMD Health News

Dec. 14, 2004 -- Women with breast cancer face little on-the-job discrimination, a new study shows.

In a small pilot study, breast cancer survivors reported encountering "job loss and demotion, decreased wages, changes in working conditions, difficulty obtaining a new job, and problems with supervisors and colleagues," writes researcher Elizabeth Maunsell, MD, with the Universitaire de Quebec, in the latest issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

However, after conducting a much larger study, Maunsell finds more room for optimism. "Our findings do not support the notion that survivors who return to work after breast cancer diagnosis and treatments experience poorer working conditions," she writes.

However, Maunsell's study reflects only breast cancer survivors in white-collar jobs, writes Leslie R. Schover, PhD, a behavioral scientist with The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, in an accompanying editorial.

"The positive picture of employment does not include women with physically demanding, blue-collar jobs who may have more difficulty returning to work after breast cancer," Schover explains. "We should not grow complacent about, nor should we trivialize the emotional and physical pain of acute cancer treatment."

Breast Cancer on the Job

To better understand these issues, Maunsell and her colleagues conducted a survey of women living in Quebec, Canada, in both rural and urban areas. All were under age 60 when first treated for breast cancer; they represented all levels of society, she says.

The interviews were conducted three years after the women's diagnoses. Women answered questions about their work history during and since diagnosis, including hours worked, union status, management responsibilities, employee support programs, and whether they ever worked a second job.

Women were also asked about their health problems, year of diagnosis, limitations on activities, and new health problems since breast cancer diagnosis. At the start of the study all women were working. Work conditions were similar between the women at the beginning of the follow-up.

After three years, when the women's responses were compared with women with no cancer history, researchers found:

  • 21% of breast cancer survivors and 15% of the women without a diagnosis of cancer were not employed.
  • 11% of survivors and 8% of women without a diagnosis of cancer had retired.
  • Women in both groups retired at a similar age -- 54.

The only significant difference between the two groups: 17% of breast cancer survivors had changed jobs, compared with 10% of women without a cancer history.

Among those who quit working:

  • 86% of women who survived breast cancer said it was their own decision, compared with 79% of survivors who developed a new cancer, and 76% of women without a diagnosis of cancer.
  • 42% of breast cancer survivors valued work less than they did three years earlier, compared with 26% of women without a cancer history.
  • 47% of disease-free survivors quit for work-related reasons (such as layoff or unsatisfying jobs), compared with 40% of survivors with a new cancer, and 54% of women without a cancer history.

Both survivors and women without a cancer history earning more than $30,000 a year got similar raises -- another significant finding, writes Maunsell.

"Negative events, such as being fired or leaving work because of problems with colleagues or supervisors, were rare" among breast cancer survivors, she notes.

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