Cancer in the workforce: mapping the Australian experience

Thirty seven thousand Australians aged 20-64 years of age were diagnosed with cancer in 2001 yet surprisingly little is known about the impacts of cancer on the Australian workforce, according to UNSW sociologist, Frances Lovejoy.

"We know very little about the experience of Australian workers once they are diagnosed with cancer," says Ms Lovejoy who in 2004 spent five months on light duties following surgery and chemotherapy to treat ovarian cancer.

"Do they 'soldier on' at work, reduce their hours, switch jobs or leave work altogether? These are questions we know little about. In my case I know that I'd never thought about what it takes to work with a chronic illness until I got cancer," she says

"International evidence suggests that cancer has major impacts on workforce productivity and workers' livelihoods," Lovejoy says. "US workforce data reveals that 90 per cent of people diagnosed with cancer stay at work after their diagnosis and for at least part of their treatment period.

"It seems that people with cancer have many reasons to stay on at work, even if it means reducing their working hours or switching to lighter duties. Why? Because medical bills have to be paid, and work is often a central part of our social lives and sense of personal worth."

"Many people can tolerate working even though they might have symptoms such as chronic pain and nausea," she says. "Most can 'soldier on' with these symptoms. What does stop most people from continuing to work is the fatigue that often accompanies typical cancer therapies."

With her colleague, Carol Healy, who has had recurrent cancer, Ms Lovejoy is surveying cancer patients and survivors in the community about the following questions:

  • How do workmates, supervisors, and current and future employers respond to initial cancer diagnosis and recurrent diagnoses?
  • Do cancer survivors stay on the same job, switch to a

Contact: Carol Healy
University of New South Wales

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