Nearly one-quarter go back without any change to their schedules
Researchers found that of 505 women treated for breast cancer, three-quarters were employed 16 months after their diagnosis — which is in line with the rate of employment among Swedish women in general.
And of women who were working before their diagnosis, 72 per cent went back without any change in their schedules. Fifteen per cent had cut back on their hours, while 11 per cent had not gone back at all.
"It is a very positive finding that the majority of breast cancer patients return to their prediagnosis working time," lead researcher Marie Hoyer, of Uppsala University in Sweden, said in an email. "At the same time, it is important to support women who involuntarily leave the workforce due to their disease or treatment."
Women who had undergone chemotherapy appeared to have a tougher time returning to work than those who'd had other treatments, like surgery and radiation. One-quarter of chemotherapy patients had cut down on their work hours, compared with six per cent of other women.
That's not surprising, Hoyer said, since other studies have found that chemotherapy seems to take a toll on people's work life.
"It is important that breast cancer patients discuss potential adverse effects of their treatment with their physician," Hoyer said. "Information about what to expect and how to handle potential side effects may facilitate rehabilitation and work resumption."
The findings, reported in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, are based on 505 Swedish women who were younger than 63 when they developed breast cancer. They completed questionnaires an average of four months and 16 months after their diagnosis.
Sweden has universal health care, so people do not rely on their jobs for insurance coverage. But after a serious illness, they still may need to get back to work for financial reasons, Hoyer noted.
And she said her findings are similar to what's been seen in studies from other countries, including the United States, where most working-age people do rely on their jobs for health insurance.
Research in the U.S. has suggested there are racial gaps in breast cancer patients' ability to get back to work, though. A recent study of 1,100 breast cancer patients found that Hispanic women who received chemotherapy were more likely to lose their jobs compared with white or black chemotherapy patients.
Overall, 24 per cent of all Hispanic patients had quit or lost their jobs, compared with 10 per cent of black women and seven percent of white women.
Since the gap was largely among chemotherapy patients, the researchers suggested that doctors keep women's work life in mind during treatment. They might try to schedule their treatments to make it easier for women to balance with work, or give them more help in managing side effects.
Hoyer agreed that doctors should be aware of the possible impact of chemotherapy on a woman's ability to work.
And the decision to do chemotherapy at all is an individual one, she and her colleagues note. It's possible that for some women, there could be little benefit in return for the side effects.
"In the clinical setting, it's important to discuss adverse effects so that patients can make informed treatment decisions," the researchers write.
Of course, not all women may want to return to work after breast cancer treatment. In this study, women who put less importance on their work before diagnosis were less likely to go back.
So for some, cutting back on hours, or quitting altogether, may be the "optimal outcome," the researchers say.