Breast Cancer

The number of women predicted to die from breast cancer each year is set to rise from 2022, a charity has warned. Our ageing population, rising levels of obesity and ignorance about what to look out for – and therefore delaying going to see a GP – are all factors. All the more reason for employers to support and engage with Breast Cancer Awareness Month and “wear it pink” day during October.

Employee health and wellbeing – don’t let ignorance about cancer be the death of you

Breast cancer diagnosis, treatment and survival rates have all improved in recent years but, with Breast Cancer Awareness Month during October as well as encouraging us all to “wear it pink” on October 19, latest research has suggested there is still a way to go in terms of reducing the prevalence of this disease. Employers and occupational health teams can have a key role to play in terms of workplace health education and promotion.

Research from the charity Breast Cancer Now has predicted that the number of women who will die from breast cancer each year will rise from 2022, despite the oncology advances we have seen.

It is estimated around 55,000 women and 350 men in the UK are diagnosed with the disease each year, with more than 11,000 dying from it.

The charity has predicted this will rise to 11,116 dying by 2022. In 2017, 11,175 lost their lives, though this number is expected to continue to fall until 2021.

Breast Cancer Now suggested this increase will be predominantly down to the UK’s ageing population and increasing obesity levels, but that “widespread inequality” in cancer treatment across the UK was also a factor.

Baroness Delyth Morgan, the charity’s chief executive, said: “This projected rise in breast cancer deaths is deeply worrying, but it is not too late to stop it. We now have a once in a generation opportunity to invest to stop thousands more women dying from breast cancer and we urge the government to act now.”

Ignorance around symptoms

Separately, research from insurer and healthcare provider Bupa has highlighted that ignorance may also be driving this increase.

It warned that “widespread confusion” among the public about a range of cancer symptoms, including breast cancer, was leading to delayed diagnoses and irregular self-examinations.

As many as two in five Britons had never checked for common cancers, nearly half were unclear what to check for, and six million delayed seeking medical help, it said.

It has as a result launched an easy-to-follow “Check-CUP” for cancer guide to helping alert people to symptoms sooner.

What, then, should employers make of this?

Return-to-work support and adjustment

First, naturally, the predictions about rising death rates should concern us all at an individual level. But it is also true that, while each and every death from cancer is a personal and family tragedy, it is often employers that pick up the day-to-day fallout, in terms of managing employees going through cancer diagnosis and treatment (or their relatives and friends), return to work or bereavement.

Second, while naturally most employers will want to bend over backwards to support valued employees in these circumstances, it is important employers make full use of the multidisciplinary expertise that occupational health can often bring to bear.

‘Pivotal’ role of occupational health

As Dr Lucy Wright, Chief Medical Officer at Optima Health, highlights: “Diagnosis of and treatment for cancer will, naturally, take place within secondary and primary care. But occupational health can still play a pivotal support role.

“It can act as the go-between between the employee and employer, especially in terms of advice, guidance and support around adjustments post-treatment and return to work. Occupational health can also be invaluable in terms of general support and guidance for managers and HR in how to manage and respond to what can be a challenging situation for everyone in the most sympathetic, constructive and practical way possible.

“It is important that employers make full use of the many excellent tools and resources that are out there, for example the Macmillan at Work service. Finally, as this research has highlighted, tackling ignorance is still a key issue, and so backing and engaging with calendar markers such as Breast Cancer Awareness Month and ‘wear it pink’ day can make a real difference in terms of raising awareness and knowledge and kickstarting important conversations in this area,” she adds.