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What is the real cost of cancer?



The statistics around cancer don’t make comfortable reading given that Macmillan warns that by the year 2020 half the population in the UK will get cancer in their lifetime. The current pandemic hasn’t helped – thousands of lives could be put at risk and could be lost to delays in cancer surgery. In fact, scientists suggest there could be at least 7,000 additional deaths - worst case scenario it could be as high as 35,000.

During the last decade, both men and women have been forced to compete for short-term or zero-hours contracts because of austerity. Women already face discrimination from employers which adds to the precarity of their positions in the workforce. It has been women who have been bearing the brunt of the government’s austerity drive in the public sector in recent years. Twice as many women as men have lost jobs in local government since 2010. The current pandemic will worsen the situation for all cancer patients and can only get worse as we come out of lockdown. Over 55,000 new breast cancer cases are diagnosed each year and the figures are rising. Most studies show that women want to get back to ‘normal’ and describe how returning to work helps to achieve this. Their disabilities are sometimes hidden, for example fatigue and emotional stress may result in a loss of confidence and work ability. For some, there are wider health implications which may affect their mobility or return to work (RTW).

Women’s opportunity to RTW after cancer are constrained for two main reasons: firstly, there is a lack of opportunity to return because they feel they are not supported by employers, for example my research found that there was little or no discussion about RTW plans or adjustments and therefore many felt they could not return. Secondly, when women return to work after treatment, they may struggle to cope with their usual workload due to physical or cognitive disabilities caused by invasive surgery and treatment. Very often symptoms such as fatigue and emotional stress are not visible and therefore employers expect them to work ‘normally’. These symptoms do not automatically disappear when they return – they can be long-term. Many managers have a lack of understanding of managing cancer at work, possibly due to few training opportunities offered by employers. For whatever reason, this in turn reduces working opportunities for women to return to work after cancer. The cost of cancer is high both for cancer patients in terms of job loss and for employers having to retrain staff when women feel they cannot return to their original jobs. For women’s employment to be sustainable, employers need to provide a safe return to work after cancer treatment. My Doctoral research, along with many studies shows that employers need to ensure that their managers have adequate knowledge and understanding of what it is like working with cancer. With the existing low numbers returning to work after cancer treatment and the increase in cancer cases that are predicted, employers need to ask:

What do the Equality/Disability Acts require of our organisation?

What is our duty of care?

How are we implementing policy that is effective in supporting disabled employees with cancer?

How can we improve communication to support and encourage a return to work after cancer from diagnosis to return to work?

The cost of cancer care in the UK has increased at an unprecedented rate in the last decade. Add to this, the new rise in expected cases of all cancers that have been diagnosed and treated at a late stage because of Covid-19, we are likely to see many people suffering serious setbacks in terms of treatment options and/or a return to work. Sadly, it is estimated that cancer deaths in England could rise by a fifth due to Covid-19. The real cost of cancer is yet to be determined but we must act now because the cost to society is far too great to ignore.

Dr Dianne Dowling

July 2020