Cancer Survivors Face Unique Challenges Reentering the Workforce

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Finances were a driving factor to look for a job, but underneath that were [concerns] more about identity and the desire to contribute.

—Rebecca V. Nellis, MPP

An online survey of 201 unemployed cancer survivors looking for work found that a majority—61%—are at least somewhat concerned that a potential employer would find out about their cancer diagnosis and not hire them. In this survey conducted by Cancer and Careers, 66% of participants said they needed more information to balance their health and work life, and 54% agreed that health-care professionals could do a better job of advising patients about these demands.

Opportunity for Dialogue

“There is an opportunity for dialogue that might help survivors stay at work if that’s what they want or go back to work with a realistic understanding of what they can and can’t do following their cancer treatment,” said Rebecca V. Nellis, MPP, Vice President of Programs and Strategy for Cancer and Careers, an organization dedicated to serving the needs of working people during and after cancer treatment. “And oncologists and the supportive oncology universe is the key to that [dialogue].”

The survey, conducted between November 2013 and February 2014, included male and female survivors, aged 18 and older, 79% of whom have been looking for work for up to 3 years. While all cancer types were represented in the survey, the majority of respondents were survivors of breast cancer, followed by skin and gynecologic cancers; 14% were survivors of penile, prostate, or testicular cancers. More than half of the respondents (52%) had finished their treatment no longer than 5 years earlier.

More than half of respondents said that cancer impacted their work life in some way, causing 63% to either take time off from work or quit their job altogether. The primary reason for returning to work cited by 79% of respondents was “financial concerns”; however, many survivors also said they wanted to “feel as normal as possible” and that “work keeps me feeling productive and busy, so I’m not always worrying about the cancer diagnosis.”

“A cancer diagnosis doesn’t just bring with it questions of mortality, but also questions of identity, and so many people define themselves by what they do,” said Ms. Nellis. “Of course, finances were a driving factor to look for a job, but underneath that reason were all these [concerns] that were more about identity and the desire to contribute.” ■


For resources on how to help cancer survivors manage treatment and returning to work, visit the ­Cancer and Careers website at ­




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