Cancer patients have suffered enough

“Chemotherapy” by ggpurk is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

During a BBC interview on 1 October 2021, Boris Johnson added insult to injury by using the phrase: “Never mind life expectancy or cancer outcomes – look at wage growth.” Clearly, the only metric he was interested in was economic. This is deeply offensive to cancer patients and their families, and shows a total lack of respect and regard for people who have struggled with accessing or receiving treatment during the various lockdowns.

In the early days of the pandemic, before the vaccine roll-out, many patients held back from reporting cancer symptoms and stayed away from healthcare settings through fear of catching Covid-19. Following a late diagnosis, a great number now find that their prognosis is poor, with some facing terminal outcomes. I know this because I am picking up the pieces of many people’s lives through the work I do as a cancer coaching therapist.

I work with two cancer support groups in the south west, in addition to providing support to bereaved families on behalf of a hospice. I am now seeing many cancer patients and their families who need urgent support and have done so for some time.

In a recent blog by Chris’s Cancer Community, entitled ‘The National Health Lottery’, the eponymous writer reported that:

“Millions will die prematurely due to delayed diagnosis, many more will suffer whilst waiting for relatively routine surgeries. This is not for the want of hard work by the incredible staff in the NHS.”

An alarming fact is that over 55,000 new breast cancer cases are diagnosed each year, and the figures are rising. As part of my doctoral research, I conducted interviews with breast cancer respondents and HR directors from major employers based in the south west of England. My research found that the success of women’s return to work was limited due to employers’ lack of understanding of their working [dis]ability, with few or no adjustments in place to accommodate their needs. Although more recently Macmillan Cancer Support has offered help to employees on agreeing a return-to-work plan and advice on reasonable adjustments, some employers remain unaware of the difficulties that women face on their return.

Some disabilities are hidden: for example, fatigue and emotional stress may follow surgery and chemotherapy/radiotherapy treatments, leading to loss of mental and physical work capability. Studies show that a return to work allows breast cancer patients to move on from their cancer diagnosis but that they struggle to overcome the barriers in the process of returning to work. My research found that only one third of the breast cancer patients I interviewed were able to re-commence their original jobs; others were left with no choice but to change career paths or were persuaded by their employers to retire early due to ill health, which for some continues long after diagnosis and treatment.

An extensive review of existing literature, coupled with my own findings, shows that many women suffer discrimination at work after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Macmillan’s research highlights that such prejudice has existed for many years. Their 2006 report revealed the extent to which employers were flouting the law regarding cancer patients. But what does this mean exactly? If there are no studies of managers’ understanding of and attitudes towards women with breast cancer and their limitations in the workplace, then how are we to understand how employers are flouting the law?

A further Macmillan report, which was the result of an online YouGov survey conducted in 2013 and entitled, ‘Rise in Cancer Patients Facing Discrimination at Work’, shows this practice continuing. Attitudes to people working with cancer have to change. Cancer Research UK has provided clear facts: one in two people will develop cancer sometime in their lives, which makes this an urgent message that cannot be ignored by employers or governments.

At present, cancer sufferers are not able to feel confident that their wellbeing is a priority when they hear throwaway remarks like those made by our prime minister during that BBC interview. This disregard by Johnson only reinforces the notion that people living with cancer can be overlooked and that they are somehow a risk to economic growth. In spite of their diagnosis, most people with cancer can live reasonably full lives and still have much to contribute in the workplace.

© Dr Dianne Dowling

The complete doctoral research thesis can be downloaded from: