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Unemployment Common After Breast Cancer Treatment

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The effect of a breast cancer diagnosis on work life can vary from person to person. For some people, the effect is minimal because they have an understanding supervisor, a flexible schedule, and a supportive team helping them during treatment.

For other people, taking time off for treatment may put their job at risk.

A study of women in Detroit and Los Angeles found that nearly 33% of women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer who were working when they began treatment were unemployed 4 years later. Women who received chemotherapy were more likely to be unemployed.

The research was published online on April 28, 2014 by the journal Cancer. Read the abstract of “Impact of adjuvant chemotherapy on long-term employment of survivors of early-stage breast cancer.”

The researchers surveyed 746 women who had been diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer between 2005 and 2007 twice:

  • just after the women were diagnosed
  • again, 4 years after diagnosis

The women were all younger than 65 when they were diagnosed.

All the women in the study were working for pay when they were diagnosed. Four years later, 236 women (30%) were no longer working. Women who received chemotherapy were more likely to not be working 4 years after being diagnosed:

  • 38% of women who received chemotherapy were unemployed
  • 27% of women who didn’t get chemotherapy were unemployed

Most of the women said they wanted to work:

  • 55% of the unemployed women said it was important for them to work
  • 39% of the unemployed women said they were actively looking for work

Women who were unemployed were also much more likely to report that they were worse off financially, which isn’t surprising.

Many women take time off work during chemotherapy treatment because of side effects. The researchers said it’s possible this may lead to long-term employment problems. Besides short-term side effects such as nausea and hair loss, chemotherapy also may cause side effects that last long after treatment ends, including neuropathy (nerve pain) and cognitive issues, also called “chemo brain,” which may affect a person’s ability to work.

Still, there are ways to take the time off from work that you need and still maintain your job and financial security.

Short and long-term disability programs provide a percentage of your income in the event of an injury or illness that prevents you from working. Short-term disability may be granted by the state or your employer for a certain period of time, usually 3 to 6 months. When short-term disability expires, long-term disability may be approved by the federal government or your employer. Talk to your human resources department about what your company offers and to find out if you’re eligible.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows you to take up to 12 weeks unpaid leave to heal from a serious health condition while keeping any benefits you may have and maintaining your position with your employer. But the FMLA only covers companies that employ 50 or more people. You also must be a full-time employee and have been working at the company for at least 1 year.

Visit the pages on Breast Cancer and Your Job for more information and resources.

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