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Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month

20th March 2019

This month (March) is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, run by the charity Target Ovarian Cancer. As well as getting employees involved in engaging fundraising activities, this is an opportunity for employers to work to raise awareness and understanding of this potentially deadly condition.

Employee health and wellbeing – don’t be embarrassed to speak up about ovarian cancer

This month (March) is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, run by the charity Target Ovarian Cancer. Organisations, groups and individuals up and down the country will be encouraged to get involved in fundraising and awareness-raising activities, including bakes, walking challenges (11,000 steps a day), and “big colour clash” challenges.

Such activities can, of course, be a great way to raise money for a good cause, in the process generating team spirit and engagement and helping to raise awareness of a condition that it is estimated kills more than 4,000 people every year. Indeed, the BBC journalist and presenter Dianne Oxberry was a high-profile casualty of the condition in January.

But as well as direct involvement in the month itself, employers can have an important wider health promotion and education role.

Ignoring symptoms

This is because ovarian cancer, like many cancers, is much more survivable if it is diagnosed and treated early. Yet its early symptoms, notably abdominal bloating, frequently needing to pee, changes in bowel movement, loss of appetite, nausea and tiredness can all too easily be dismissed or ignored. The fact symptoms can feel “embarrassing” can also prevent people from coming forward to see their GP or get medical advice as early as they should.

By highlighting symptoms to watch out for and not ignore, and encouraging people to seek medical advice early, whether from their GP or another health professional (including occupational health), employers can play an important part in reducing stigma around the condition and ensuring individuals have the best chance possible of surviving a diagnosis.

On top of this, it is important for employers and managers to be aware of some of the common post-treatment return-to-work issues associated with this condition, and expert occupational health support can provide key leadership and support.

For example, it can take up to three months to recover fully from surgery to treat ovarian cancer, and patients should not drive for a month or undertake strenuous lifting or heavy exercise for at least three months.

Follow-up checks and blood tests

There will also be a need for time-off for regular follow-up checks and blood tests and there may be psychological or mental health issues to take into account, meaning that access to an Employee Assistance Programme may be valuable, both in terms of confidential counselling for an employee and best practice support for a manager.

As Dr Lucy Wright, Optima Health Chief Medical Officer, makes clear, while managing treatment of this condition will, naturally, be an issue for the NHS, managing return-to-work support – getting the process and the conversations right – can often feel challenging for an employer.

“Supporting a cancer ‘survivor’ back into work following diagnosis and treatment is always likely to be emotional and challenging. But, especially as diagnosis, treatment and survival rates for cancer continue to improve, it is something employers will increasingly need to do,” she says.

“The transition back into work following cancer can often be daunting for the employee but also a much-needed step back towards ‘normality’. But there is much at a practical level that employers can do to support the process, often with the help and leadership of expert occupational health practitioners.

“Resources such as those offered by cancer charity Macmillan Cancer Support can be helpful as, too, can be support and guidance offered by smaller specialist charities such as, for ovarian cancer, Target Ovarian Cancer and Ovarian Cancer Action.

“More widely, events such as Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month are a great way not only to fundraise but also to raise awareness around the symptoms and ‘stigma’ of such cancers and when individuals should urgently seek medical or healthcare advice,” Lucy adds.