Cancer patients may return to work too early

Breast cancer report highlights Irish issues
  • Deborah Condon

Women in Ireland who are diagnosed with breast cancer may return to work too early as a result of financial pressure caused by the disease, a new European report has found.

According to the findings, returning to work after a diagnosis of breast cancer can be difficult for many women because of a lack of support and consideration by their employers.

The report by the Economist Intelligence Unit looked at the challenges faced by breast cancer patients and survivors when returning to work. It noted that for women of a working age who are diagnosed with the disease, not being able to work can be devastating as it can lead to further feelings of isolation.

As a result, returning to employment can be crucial for helping women to feel like they are getting their lives back.

The Europe-wide report found that when it came to Ireland, of those who had been employed or self-employed when their cancer was diagnosed, 63% had returned to work by the time of the survey, and 18% had definitely decided to leave their employment.

The researchers pointed out that in Ireland, 66% of women are diagnosed with breast cancer before the age of 65, compared with 55% in the EU as a whole, which indicates that ‘the growth in breast cancer survivorship will become of increasing relevance to the labour force'.

The report acknowledged that the side-effects of breast cancer and its treatment can make returning to work harder. However, it emphasised that there are many other issues at play as well. Important non-medical barriers include:
-A lack of support from employers and/or colleagues
-The extent to which work is physically demanding
-Socio-economic factors, such as financial dependence and marital status.

The researchers said that these factors can overlap to make particular groups of people vulnerable, especially working class women.

In relation to Ireland, the report noted that breast cancer patients and survivors do benefit from some degree of employment rights. For example, cancer is automatically classed as a disability under Ireland's Employment Equality Act and this prevents employers from treating those who have ever had cancer differently from non-disabled workers in areas such as hiring, terms of employment, offers of advancement and work-related benefits.

However, it also pointed out that practical support ‘is highly limited'. For example, employers are not required to offer sick pay or pay employees for time needed for medical appointments.

While those who do not receive sick pay are eligible for sickness benefit from the Department of Social Protection, the amount available is just €4,500-€10,000 per year depending on the patient's wages before taking sick leave.

The report also highlights the fact that ‘except for those with a sufficiently low income, the public healthcare system charges user fees to access GP and hospital care'.

"Private insurance is available, and total annual inpatient hospital payments are capped at €800 per year. Nevertheless, costs for cancer survivors and patients often mount up," it stated.

The researchers emphasised that those who are least protected from these financial stresses end up resuming work more frequently.

"In particular, patients who do not qualify for free care and the self-employed - who have no sick pay - return to work in far greater numbers than those who are employed or do not have to pay for treatment.

"This is no coincidence. Interviews with patients and social workers indicate that reduced income, higher expenses, lack of financial support from other sources and the risk of dismissal as a result of long sick leave were important considerations in the decision of many patients to return to work," the report said.

It concluded that this divergence in return-to-work rates based on financial
situations ‘suggests that at least some Irish women with breast cancer may be going back before they are ready'.

"As Ireland sees an increasing number of breast cancer patients and survivors of working age, addressing the legal, financial and other barriers they face in returning to work will become more pressing," it added.

This report was commissioned by Pfizer.


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