By Stephen Ornes
During and after therapy, survivors are navigating a new workplace
By Stephen Ornes
In 1994, attorney Meg Gaines was diagnosed with ovarian cancer; by 1995, after treatment, she was back at work full-time. A professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Law in Madison, Gaines quickly discovered that her old office was anything but business as usual.
“I went back to my old job, and the job was the same, but I was completely different,” she says. “There was this whole area of, who am I now, and would the person I am now do the job I’ve been doing?”
Gaines is not alone. Finding balance between cancer survivorship and life at work affects a large and possibly increasing population. The National Cancer Institute estimates that of the roughly 11 million cancer survivors in the United States, 40 percent are traditional working age, younger than 65 years old.
Yet the relationship between survivorship and employment has borne a surprisingly small collection of studies. One reason is that employment issues are a recent arrival to the field of survivorship research, says Cathy Bradley, a health economist at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Massey Cancer Center in Richmond.
“It’s a fairly new phenomenon, working and continuing your cancer treatment at the same time,” she says. “Cancer wasn’t a chronic condition before. There was an attitude among physicians and patients—and I think some of it still persists—that once you’re diagnosed, you quit everything, you quit your job, you quit what you normally do and you focus solely on treatment.”
Now, she says, outpatient treatments are available, and that means more people continue to work. In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology in 2006, Bradley and her colleagues interviewed more than 400 female breast cancer survivors and found that 80 percent of the study’s participants were back at work 18 months after diagnosis.
The numbers are even higher for other kinds of cancer. In a study published in Cancer in 2005, for example, health economists at the Pennsylvania State University at University Park interviewed more than 1,400 survivors of various cancers. Of those patients who were working at the time of diagnosis, 60 percent worked during treatment, and fully 84 percent were back at work four years after diagnosis.
It is likely that many survivors are also finding new obstacles in their old work environments. About one in five participants reported a cancer-related health problem that limited their ability to work. Moreover, study leader Pamela Farley Short, the director of Penn State’s Center for Health Care and Policy Research, says that current research has led scientists to a number of big questions, including the issue of long-term effects of cancer treatment. “One of the big unknowns is that we’re not really too sure what happens to [cancer survivors] over the long term, to their employment,” she says. “Do people who have a history of cancer end up working less than other people?”