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Most women return to work after breast cancer

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – Women who were in the workforce before a breast cancer diagnosis often get back to their normal job routine after treatment, at least in Sweden.

Researchers there found that of 505 women treated for breast cancer, three-quarters were employed 16 months after their diagnosis – which is in line with the rate of employment among Swedish women in general.

And of women who were working before their diagnosis, 72% went back without any change in their schedules. Fifteen percent had cut back on their hours, while 11% had not gone back at all.

“It is a very positive finding that the majority of breast cancer patients return to their prediagnosis working time,” lead researcher Marie Hoyer, of Uppsala University in Sweden, said in an email.

“At the same time,” she added, “it is important to support women who involuntarily leave the work force due to their disease or treatment.”

Women who had undergone chemotherapy appeared to have a tougher time returning to work than those who’d had surgery and radiation. One-quarter of chemotherapy patients had cut down on their work hours, compared with 6% of other women.

That’s not surprising, Hoyer said, since other studies have found that chemotherapy seems to take a toll on people’s work life.

It is important that patients and doctors discuss potential adverse effects of treatment, Hoyer said. “Information about what to expect and how to handle potential side effects may facilitate rehabilitation and work resumption,” she added.

The findings, reported July 9th in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, are from women who were younger than 63 when they developed breast cancer. They completed questionnaires an average of four months and 16 months after their diagnosis.

Sweden has universal healthcare, so people do not rely on their jobs for insurance coverage. But after a serious illness, they still may need to get back to work for financial reasons, Hoyer noted.

And she said her findings are similar to what’s been seen in studies from other countries, including the U.S., where most working-age people do rely on their jobs for health insurance.

Research in the U.S. has suggested there are racial gaps in breast cancer patients’ ability to get back to work, however. A recent study of 1,100 breast cancer patients found that Hispanic women who received chemotherapy were more likely to lose their jobs compared with white or black chemotherapy patients.

Overall, 24% of all Hispanic patients had quit or lost their jobs, compared with 10% of black women and 7% of white women.

Since the gap was largely among chemotherapy patients, the researchers suggested that doctors keep women’s work life in mind during treatment. They might try to schedule their treatments to make it easier for women to balance with work, or give them more help in managing side effects.

Hoyer agreed that doctors should be aware of the possible impact of chemotherapy on a woman’s ability to work. And the decision to do chemotherapy at all is an individual one, she and her colleagues note. It’s possible that for some women, there could be little benefit in return for the side effects.

“In the clinical setting, it’s important to discuss adverse effects so that patients can make informed treatment decisions,” the researchers write.

Of course, not all women may want to return to work after breast cancer treatment. In this study, women who put less importance on their work before diagnosis were less likely to go back.

So for some, cutting back on hours, or quitting altogether, may be the “optimal outcome,” the researchers say.


J Clin Oncol 2012.