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Cancer Survivors at Work

How does cancer affect work ability and employment and what is the extent of the social support cancer survivors receive from their work community? Taina Taskila, M. Soc. Sc, investigated the subject in her dissertation, which will be examined at the Medical Faculty of University of Helsinki on August 18th, 2007.

Many cancer survivors are willing to return to work after defeating their illness. However, there remains a possibility that due to their illness they will encounter physical and social difficulties at work. In her dissertation M. Soc. Sc. Taina Taskila studied the effect of cancer on employment and work ability as well as social support and the need for support in the working environment.

The impact of cancer on employment was studied using data from the Finnish cancer registry. The first data set consisted of 46 312 and the second of 12 542 working-age people with cancer. Both data sets also included an equal number of referents without cancer. Before becoming ill, the employment percentage in both groups was 78%. “2-3 years after the diagnosis the employment percentage of those with cancer was 64% while for the control group it was 73%. However, even among the people with cancer the employment situation varied according to education and cancer type: the probability of being employed was greater in the higher than in the lower educational groups,” Taskila notes.

The retirement rate among the people with cancer was 34% whereas it was 27% among the control group. Yet also the retirement rate varied greatly according to the cancer type. Those with leukemia or cancer of the nervous system were twice as likely to retire as the control group, whereas there were no differences in retirement numbers between people with skin cancer and their referents.

Taskila also studied the emotional and practical support the cancer survivors had received from their colleagues, supervisors and occupational health care. The data set, attained by a questionnaire, consisted of 640 cancer survivors.

The cancer survivors wished for more support particularly from the occupational health care personnel. Especially the men who had lymphoma, had received chemotherapy or had a low education level wanted more support.

The working ability of cancer survivors was studied by a questionnaire survey, the study consisting of 591 cancer survivors and of a control group of 757 people without cancer. The study showed the current overall working ability of cancer survivors did not differ from that of the control group. Yet 26% of people with cancer reported that their physical work ability and 19% that their mental work ability had deteriorated due to cancer. The cancer survivors who felt that their work ability had become worse had more often other illnesses or had received chemotherapy. However, those with a strong commitment to their work organization, or a good social climate at work, reported impairment less frequently.

“The majority of people with cancer are able to return to work. Yet there is a group of cancer survivors who leave working life early, have impaired work ability due to their illness, and suffer from a lack of social support from their work community”, Taskila comments. She concludes that more attention should be paid to the factors that deteriorate the possibility of the cancer survivors returning to work – both in treatment and in the workplace.

Paivi Lehtinen | alfa
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