How To Support Someone Going Through Breast Cancer


30 September 2021

"Health First. Work After."

It's almost cliché, but you only realize the true meaning of this seemingly simple phrase when you cannot do otherwise. Words won’t do justice to explain the going through of this life changing experience. Culminated with a range of emotions and feelings, can hinder us from providing healthy support. Informing ourselves about how to address such a situation is not only beneficial towards patients but is also a duty - especially if you happen to carry some extent of responsibility towards the person in question. Throughout these difficult times, every little bit of support is indispensable even more so at the work place. What can employers do to support employees diagnosed with breast cancer? Thankfully there is a lot of help available to which anyone in need, can reach out. Life on Point has reached out to Europa Donna to ask about ways how employers can be supportive in this regard.

How can employers support an employee who has been diagnosed with breast cancer?

Cancer has a wide social and economic impact. Many patients are forced to give up paid employment, reduce hours that they work and take on less responsibility, at just the time when they face the additional cost of being ill. For many cancer patients, an appropriate use of therapy can translate into years of prolonged survival with a preserved quality of life which allows them to keep a working life too. Modern oncology has transformed a killer disease into a chronic disease.

During times of hardships, patients need empathy, solidarity, and support. If employers want to improve their workforce, motivate employees and give a more positive experience to staff who are experiencing periods of stress or uncertainty they need to improve themselves and their attitude towards the individuals in need so that the business they are running will get pulled on with them.

A cancer diagnoses is no longer a death sentence. Each case is different - many are cured, some do not require extreme treatments, some will remain employable or will be employable after some time. The perspective has changed and not all patients who have been diagnosed with a cancer end up bed ridden. An employer dismissing a patient on the basis of being diagnosed with a cancer is discriminatory and heartless.

YES, it is reasonable and to be expected that the duties of that patient employee need to be pursued. However, solutions can be found within the team. An employer should also take an inclusive approach and give feedback on the way forward. An employer should discuss the matter with the team and be open to new work approaches and ideas. Employee perspectives should matter when making decisions. If a patient employee is away for some time an employer should review the composition of the team so that the workload of the individual can be shared by the team. Where possible an employer can allow flexibility both to the patient and to those supporting the ill employee. Flexibility is not about working less but it would enable each individual to meet their targets which leads to providing maximum contribution by each individual.

Is there a health policy which employers should follow?

It is up to the organisation to hold a health policy in place. One is to be realistic too, many organisations locally are small. However, it is recommendable to contact the Department for Industrial and Employment Relations for specific guidance. Additionally, we are aware that the Department of Social Security offers support to patients on long term sickness, however it is not specified for cancer patients only. Furthermore, it is recommendable that patients or their carers reach out to the Social Work Services within the Clinical Support Services Department at SAMOC level -1. The unit aims at understanding the individual`s difficulties within their social environment so that individuals can find their own strengths to overcome difficulties.

What can be done to facilitate the needs of the employee?

Due to COVID-19 restrictions many, organisations had to resolve and have their workforce at home. Many had to adapt and be flexible especially those who do office work. An organisation that has invested so much in technology must allow patients who can still contribute to the work stream and offer the possibility to work from home. Flexibility would save the employer having to employ someone new, who would require building trust in, and training amongst others. Offering flexibility to the patient offers financial stability. The patient feels he belongs and feels motivated to return to work once the storm is over or the disease has been stabilised.

Working from home helps the patient to avoid meeting other people especially those whose treatment reduces their immunity.

What can co-workers do?

Cancer remains a taboo and some refuse to talk about the matter or do not want others to know about, however patients need to accept help as the rest of a patients life still needs to function. Either if it is a household of one or a houseful of kids, bills must be paid, meals need to be cooked and house must be cleaned. Some items are taken care of by family members but others can give a helping hand too. Co-workers can team up to support the patient and the family. Co-workers can drive to medical appointments or drive children to school or other activities, do shopping or other errands, paying bills even if it is online but it reduces the burden of having to do another task. Helping a cancer patient is a manifestation of love to carry on forward.

What is best to say/not say to someone who has just opened up with you?

One needs to listen to someone who has just opened up with you and not give feedback. It is important to refer to the person first and not his/her disease. A condition is what someone has, not what someone is. Cancer patients are not victims but a positive individual who has lived up a storm no matter how big or small it is.

Show your availability to help. Don't say you look great. When asking a question state that “No response is necessary”. Listen attentively. Do say that you admire the individual in the way he is handling his disease.

What advice would you give to managers and employers?

Cancer patients do need time off due to physical symptoms, fatigue, pain, infections, nerve damage, cognitive symptoms, emotional and psychological symptoms, however many do return to work.

As a patient I would advise to sit with the individual to identify the challenges and try to identify support, develop a work plan that will enable the patient to work and especially when the patient returns to work. First and foremost the patient must discuss the return to work matter with a professional carer. Monitor the progress together and discuss the patient's expectation at the work place.

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