30 percent of breast cancer survivors later lost their jobs

Working women who survive breast cancer are significantly more likely to lose their jobs, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Michigan Health System found that 30 percent of women who had jobs when they began treatment for breast cancer were unemployed four years later. The study also found that the type of treatment women received had a direct impact on their likelihood of being unemployed. According to the report, women who underwent chemotherapy had a 1.4 times higher chance of unemployment following treatment.

Many people are forced to take time off while getting chemotherapy treatment to deal with extreme fatigue, nausea and other immediate side effects of the therapy. The researchers say it's possible this could lead to long-term employment problems for a number of reasons. For example, chemotherapy treatments can cause long-term side effects such as neuropathy or cognitive issues, causing a drop-off in work performance.

More than half of the women who had lost their jobs said it was important for them to work and 39 percent said they were actively looking for work. Those who were not working were significantly more likely to report they were worse off financially.

The findings point to the need to reduce the burden of breast cancer treatment and reinforce current efforts to develop better strategies for patients who may not necessarily need chemotherapy to be part of their treatment plan.

"Many clinicians believe that although patients may miss work during treatment, they will 'bounce back' in the longer term," Dr. Reshma Jagsi, lead researcher and an associate professor in the department of radiation oncology at the University of Michigan Health System, said in a statement. "The results of this study suggest otherwise and highlight a possible long-term adverse consequence to adjuvant chemotherapy that may not have been fully appreciated to date."

Jagsi said this showed how important it is to identify breast cancer patients who may gain little benefit from chemotherapy, and therefore, may be able to avoid the treatment.

"We also need to ensure that patients who are deciding on whether to receive chemotherapy understand the potential long-term consequences of receiving treatment," she said, "including possible implications for their employment and financial outcomes."

The study, which appears in the current issue of the journal Cancer, looked at 2,290 women diagnosed with non-metastatic breast cancer. Researchers looked at post-diagnosis surveys which asked about paid employment, financial issues, and other quality-of-life factors. Four years later, 1,536 women completed a follow-up questionnaire.

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    Constantine von Hoffman is a freelance writer and writing coach. His work has appeared in outlets such as Harvard Business Review, NPR, Sierra magazine, Brandweek, CIO, The Boston Herald, TheStreet.com, CSO, and Boston Magazine.

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