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Breast Cancer in the Workplace

Except for some kinds of skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the U.S. According to the American Cancer Society, about 1 in 8 (12%) women in the U.S. will develop invasive breast cancer during her lifetime. Though possibly due to earlier detection and improved treatments, there is a slight decline in death from breast cancer in recent decades. Currently, there are more than 2.8 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S.

With increased detection and survivorship, many women are living with (or recovering from) breast cancer—and many are of working age. According to an online survey commissioned by Pfizer and Cancer and Careers, an organization dedicated to helping people with cancer manage their careers, there is a lack of awareness concerning breast cancer issues in the workplace.

This online survey called Supporting Workplace Conversations was designed to gain insights from women who worked or looked for work after being diagnosed with breast cancer. This unique survey included 1,002 breast cancer patients or survivors (including 189 women with metastatic breast cancer), 200 healthcare providers (doctors and nurses), and 102 U.S. employers.

Survey Results

Responses showed that 77% of women with breast cancer, including those with early and advanced disease, felt that working aided in their recovery. It was interesting to note that the vast majority of healthcare providers (92%) agreed.

In addition to financial reasons, women also indicated that they wanted to work for emotional reasons, including:

  • Wanting to feel productive
  • Personal fulfillment at work
  • A desire to feel “normal”

Communication Gap

Additionally, the survey results showed that there are many gaps in communication on workplace issues between patients, their healthcare providers and their employers. For instance, 87% of oncologists (a doctor who treats cancer) stressed that career advice, tips, tools and resources are important for women with breast cancer while getting or holding down a job. At the same time, 73% of employers report that such support is available (such as specific job modifications like flex time, more frequent breaks and schedule changes). However, only 22% of the surveyed women with breast cancer knew about the availability of such resources.

Challenges in the Workplace and Your Rights

Despite their desire to work, nearly half of women who participated in this survey felt that their cancer had a negative impact on their work life, especially due to treatment side effects. Also, according to another study of nearly 400 advanced breast cancer survivors from the Cancer Experience Registry® (an online community where cancer survivors share their experiences and insights on managing cancer), nearly 50% of women who left their jobs after a cancer diagnosis did not do so by choice. Even among those who continued to work, around 12% experienced "involuntary changes to their work schedules." Plus, about 20% reported some kind of job discrimination.

Fear of not being able to perform to standard and of potential bias may make it difficult to bring up the topic of your breast cancer diagnosis or treatment plan with your employer. However you have rights as an employee, and it’s important to know what they are. The Americans with Disabilities Act, and other laws may protect you from discrimination at work. Plus many employers and co-workers may very well want to support your choice to work. Also, there may be more options than you know about that can help you to thrive in the workplace. 

First Thing’s First

Before speaking to your boss about your condition, be sure to talk to your doctor. The more you know about your treatment and recovery, the more you will be able to partner with your employer to create a plan that works for you. Specifically ask your oncologist about the ways that your illness and treatment may affect your work. Ask if there are options to help you better achieve your work goals. Here are some tips:

  • Let your doctor know what you do in your job and that it's important for you to make decisions that will benefit your health and accommodate your job whenever possible
  • Ask about the ways that your diagnosis and treatment might affect your job performance
  • Find out specific details about your medications and treatments, including common side effects
  • Ask about treatments that might make it easier to continue working

In the meantime, you may want to begin to prepare for important conversations about work. To do so, consider the following:

  • What job modifications might you make to feel more comfortable during or after treatment? More frequent breaks, flex time, or part-time schedule?
  • What kind of medical leave might be helpful? Formal time off, donated vacation time, or sick leave?

Where to Get More Workplace Support

In the survey, women with all stages of breast cancer clearly expressed their desire to work for a variety of reasons, though continuing to work with breast cancer is a significant challenge. The good news is that you do not have to do this alone. Doctors, employers and co-workers may be willing to provide various types of support for you at your job, while you have (or are recovering from) cancer. Many more helpful tips, tools, and resources can be found at Cancer and Careers.

Matthew Cotter, PhD, is a Medical Director at Pfizer Oncology.


  • 1. American Cancer Society. What are the key statistics about breast cancer? Accessed: September 10, 2015.
  • 2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Breast cancer statistics. Accessed: August 31, 2015.
  • 3. Cancer and Careers. The intersection of work and cancer. Accessed: August 31, 2015.
  • 4. Pfizer. New survey finds majority of women with breast cancer who work want to do so even while undergoing treatment. Accessed: August 31, 2015.
  • 5. Buzaglo JS, Morris A, Gayer C, et. Al. Work-related impact of metastatic breast cancer: results from the Cancer Experience Registry. Accessed: August 31, 2015.
  • 6. Cancer and Careers. Top three legal questions about employment. Accessed: August 31, 2015.
  • 7. Cancer and Careers. Your legal rights in the workplace: cancer and the ADA, FMLA. Accessed: August 31, 2015.
  • 8. Cancer and Careers. Creating an action plan. Accessed: August 31, 2015.