Jos Verbeek and Evelien Spelten

Chemo Secrets From a Breast Cancer Survivor

Breast Cancer Survivors

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The situation of cancer patients returning to work has taken a turn for the better. Where early research reported profound job discrimination of cancer patients (e.g. Feldman1), recent literature suggests that breast cancer patients are only slightly less frequently unemployed than their healthy controls.1 Maunsell et al. found a statistically significant 7% difference in risk of being unemployed between breast cancer survivors and healthy controls 3 years after diagnosis and concludes that job discrimination is not an issue anymore. In a more recent survey of return to work among breast cancer patients, only 7% perceived that they were discriminated against because of their cancer diagnosis.2 However, this does by no means imply that the return to work process cannot be difficult for individual patients.3 This could also be reflected in the finding that cancer is among the most frequent causes of dispute and litigation.4

Return to work has been a topic of interest in research for over 30 years, where nevertheless only a few attempts have been made to transfer knowledge to the field of cancer survivorship. In this chapter, we consider the main points that have been addressed in research. We look at the remarkable change in tone and issues, which has taken place over the course of the past 30 years. In this context, we present a model of factors impacting the return to work of cancer patients. We reflect on the progress that has been made and we realize that not all problems have been solved. Despite the obvious improvements, cancer patients still have to battle ignorance and hostility in the workplace and still have to cope with the aftermath of a diagnosis and treatment which has a significant impact upon their lives and well-being. We note areas and issues that will need future attention. Within this perspective we present the results of a prospective cohort study we conducted and look at the impact of fatigue on the return to work of patients.

Now that we realize that a cancer patient returning to work is no longer the exception, the next step should be taken. We need to consider how to make the patient's transition back to work as unproblematic as possible. The second half of this chapter will therefore focus on ways forward in aiding and supporting cancer patient in their return to work.


There is a substantial percentage of people below the age of 65, who see their lives affected by cancer. Advances in the detection and treatment of cancer, combined with an aging population, mean greater numbers of cancer survivors in the near future.5 Not all cancer survivors are old. In fact, current estimates suggest that roughly 40% of the cancer survivors are working age adults.6,7 This has increased attention for the societal reintegration of cancer patients. Despite the improving prospects, diagnosis and treatment still have such an impact on patients that often some form of societal reintegration is essential. The majority of the younger and middle-aged survivors will be part of the work force at the time of diagnosis. In the United States they accounted for about 4 million workers in 2002. Accurate estimates on the prevalence of cancer in the working population are hard to come by.8 There is still a need for more systematic collection of data on the employment status of cancer patients. Still, irrespective of the possible size of the group, for this group return to work is an important aspect of societal reintegration.


Being able to return to work and to stay at work is important, both for society and for the individual. From a societal point of view it is important to reduce avoidable work incapacity. Economic loss is involved in unnecessary work cessation. From an individual's point of view, not being able to return to work following an illness frequently results in financial loss, social isolation, and reduced self-esteem. This financial loss is additional to the increased financial costs patients already endure due to their illness.

Conversely, return to work can improve the quality of life of cancer patients, can have a positive effect on self-esteem and social or family roles. Patients consider return to work to be important. Work performance after cancer treatment is frequently seen as a measure of recovery in its own right.9


Over the course of a more than 30-year period, studies have been conducted into the occupational rehabilitation of cancer patients and in issues relating to job discrimination. McKenna's report in 1973 can be seen as the formal start of interest in studies of job discrimination of cancer patients in the United States. In this report, McKenna describes the adverse work and insurance history of his patients.10 These studies were followed by the extensive Feldman studies.1 Feldman conducted a 5-year study of the work experiences of blue collar workers, white collar workers, and youths with cancer histories in the 1970s and reported job discrimination as well as factors impacting on the return to work of cancer patients. The results of these studies still serve as the basis for quotes on blue collar workers having problems returning to work due to the physical nature of their work. In addition, in 1989 Ivan Barofsky edited his book: Work and Illness: The Cancer Patient, one of the very few books on the subject. A relative void which is somewhat lessened by the book in hand.

In retrospect, it emerges that the United States dominated the first years of research, placing the spotlight on legal issue such as job discrimination and on insurance problems experienced by cancer patients. Major issues were: access denied to life insurance and health insurance, as well as blatant job discrimination. For example, affordable private health insurance is usually tied to a particular job.11 These issues appear to be largely the result of the social security and legal system, or lack thereof in this country and thus describe a situation that is far from applicable across the globe.

There has been a steady flow of research on the occupational rehabilitation of cancer patients, mainly conducted in North America.12,1,13,14 These studies have focused on the patient's perspective and have signaled that cancer survivors report problems upon their return to work. The main difficulties were health and life insurance problems and a lack of understanding from coworkers. Sometimes these problems led to survivors leaving the work force.1,10

In 2002, we published a literature review for the period 1985-99, thus covering roughly the second half of the total period of 30 years.15 In this review we provided an overview of research into the return to work of cancer survivors. We examined both the rate of return to work and factors impacting this return. In order to know how many patients and which patients need help, not only information is required on the percentage of patients for whom return to work is relevant, but also on factors associated with return to work.

From our review, it became apparent that the earlier emphasis on legal and insurance issues had been augmented by a wider scope of factors impacting the return to work of cancer patients. Ranging from self-esteem, through the effects of chemotherapy to social support and lymphedema as well as fatigue and job context.

For a more systematic approach, the factors reviewed were categorized according to the World Health Organization (WHO) disability model into work-related, disease- or treatment-related, and person-related factors.16 Health complaints, mood, and other psychological factors were categorized as person-related factors. Health complaints were subsumed under person-related factors, although health complaints can be related to the disease and treatment. Since all data were based on patients' reports and since complaint levels are known to show individual variation, this seemed a more appropriate categorization. The association with work-related, disease- or treatment-related, and person-related factors was considered in terms of a positive association (indicating facilitation of return to work), a negative association (implying a hindrance to return to work), or no association with return to work.

4.1. Work-Related Factors

A positive attitude of coworkers and discretion over work hours or amount of work was positively associated with return to work. Most work-related factors, however, were negatively associated with return to work, such as manual labor and work posing physical demands. Interestingly, discrimination at work was not significantly related to return to work and did not seem to be a more prevalent problem among cancer survivors than found in a control group of persons without cancer.17 However, in a more recent survey women with breast cancer who perceived discrimination because of cancer were three times less likely to return to work than those who did not perceive discrimination.2

4.2. Disease- and Treatment-Related Factors

The only positive association was related to the number of months since the end of treatment. The chance of a return to work increased if more time had passed since the end of treatment. Most factors related to disease and treatment were not related to return to work. Mixed results were found for disease stage and cancer site. In a study of patients with Hodgkin's disease, as well as in a study of lymphoma patients, disease stage (divided in stages I-IV) was not related to return to work.18,19 In a study of breast cancer patients, disease stage was coded as a three-level variable into 'local', 'regional', and 'remote'. Women diagnosed with regional and remote disease stage were more likely to be on leave 3 months after diagnosis than women diagnosed with localized disease.20 Equally, in a study of patients with lung, cervical, pancreatic, and prostate cancer, a negative association between disease stage and return to work was found.21 However, no further specification of disease stage was given in the latter study. Weis et al. studied a heterogeneous group of cancer patients and found that patients with head and neck cancer and breast cancer reported most problems upon their return to work.22 Similarly, van der Wouden et al. reported more problems in returning to work for patients with head and neck cancer.23 Patients with testicular cancer generally reported very few problems upon returning to work and consequently had a high rate of return to work. The relatively few problems in return to work of patients with testicular cancer were also reported in a study by Bloom et al.24 In this study, patients with testicular cancer were compared to patients with Hodgkin's disease. The reporting of fewer problems by testicular cancer patients was considered to be related to their treatment having less consequences than in other cancer patients.

4.3. Person-Related Factors

Mobilizing social support was positively associated with return to work.25 However, most person-related factors were negatively associated with return to work. For example, a changing attitude toward work reflected a reduced importance of work and a decrease in aspirations with regard to work. These changes were negatively related to return to work.14 With the exception of increasing age, none of the sociode-mographic characteristics were found to have a statistically significant relation with return to work. Mixed results were found for increasing age, fatigue, and reaction to diagnosis/treatment. For increasing age, three studies reported no relation and three studies reported a negative association with return to work. Equally, fatigue was found to have either a negative or insignificant relation. In a study of men with testicular cancer, the reaction to diagnosis/treatment was found to have both a positive and a negative relation. For some patients surviving the debilitating treatments made them perceive themselves as stronger and more capable. Other patients felt less confident about their physical ability in relation to their work, or about their ability to cope with stress. They also commented on becoming less interested in work achievements as a result of having cancer. "Life is too short" to be so involved with work.26

Although we recognize the need for additional corroboration of these findings, the accumulated results from the review suggest that:

• A supportive work environment facilitated return to work.

• Manual work or work which requires strong physical effort is negatively associated with return to work.

• With respect to disease and treatment related factors, patients with head and neck cancer, in particular, are at a disadvantage when returning to work, whereas patients with testicular cancer experienced relatively few problems upon their return to work.

• Sociodemographic characteristics, including education, income, gender, and marital status, were not found to be associated with return to work.

• Although it is generally assumed that increasing age is an important hindrance in return to work, results were mixed. Most studies did not find an association, while only one study reported a negative relation between increasing age and return to work. The results did not seem to be biased toward a younger group of workers with a relatively good prognosis.

• Moreover, all studies suffered from one or more of the following methodological weaknesses: the use of small samples, unstandardized, study-specific instruments, cross sectional rather than longitudinal designs, and no statistical testing of results.

• Finally, the rate of return to work in these studies varied from 30 to 93%, with a mean rate of 62%.


In an attempt to overcome most of the methodological weaknesses discussed above, we conducted a longitudinal prospective cohort study into the return to work. The aim of the study was to assess the impact of fatigue and other cancer-related symptoms on the return to work of cancer survivors.27 For this study we developed a model of the impact of cancer-related symptoms on the return to work of cancer patients, controlling for clinical factors, subject-related factors, and person-related factors (Figure 1).

Cancer is a collective name for a heterogeneous group of diagnoses whose treatment is far from uniform. There is some evidence that the consequences of the illness and its treatment, the cancer-related symptoms that are experienced by patients, can affect the likelihood of resumption to work. For example, the relatively rapid return to work of patients with testis carcinoma is explained by the relative absence of cancer-related symptoms.15 We realized that concentrating on differences at the level of diagnosis bears the risk of generalization: e.g., not all patients with testis carcinoma experience few problems upon their return to work. Cancer-symptoms are in general independent of the cancer site and treatment. We assumed that it is not simply diagnosis and treatment that hinders return to work, but rather the symptoms patients experience as a result of their diagnosis and treatment. In the study, we paid special attention to cancer-related fatigue. Cancer-related fatigue has been described as "the commonest and most debilitating symptom in patients with cancer."28 Fatigue is one of the best known and best-researched symptoms. Other equally relevant cancer-related symptoms are depression, sleep problems, physical

Cancer Patient Return Work
Figure 1. Model of the Impact of Cancer-Related Symptoms on the Return to Work of Cancer Patients, Controlling for Clinical Factors, Person-Related Factors and Work-Related Factors.

complaints, cognitive dysfunction, and psychological distress.29-31 Cancer-related fatigue can have psychological and physical causes and is as such associated with the other symptoms, e.g., sleep problems or depression.

Cancer-related symptoms are not only highly prevalent in cancer patients, irrespective of the cancer site, but they are also likely to have an impact in a wide variety of work settings and may thus hinder the resumption of work. In addition to cancer-related symptoms, the impact of clinical, work-related, and subject-related variables15 on the resumption of work needs to be considered, including diagnosis and treatment, physical workload,1 work stress, age, gender, and work hours.15 The aim of the study was to examine the relationship between fatigue and other cancer-related symptoms and the return to work in cancer patients, taking into account the impact of clinical-, work-, and subject-related factors. The impact of the symptoms was considered in a cohort of cancer survivors starting from 6 months following their first day of sick leave. The research question was: do the symptom scores at 6 months after the first day of sick leave predict the time taken to return to work and the rate of return to work at 12 months of follow-up? For a description of patients and methods, we refer to the original paper, here we want to concentrate on the results and their implications.

In our study, 64% of the cancer patients had returned to work at 18 months following their first day of sick leave. Fatigue levels at 6 months after the start of sick leave predicted the return to work at 18 months following the first day of sick leave. This was independent of the diagnosis and treatment, but not of other cancer-related symptoms. Age and physical workload were also independently related to the return to work. The other potential predictive factors like sleep problems, cognitive functioning, psychological distress, and work pressure were not significantly related to the return to work.

To our knowledge, this was the first longitudinal study in which the impact of cancer-related symptoms on the resumption of the work has been investigated in a systematic way. We were able to follow the cohort for a sufficiently long and appropriate period in which an additional 40% returned to work. The loss of patients during the follow-up was small. We studied factors that were important in predicting the return to work, identified from previous research. Within the cohort, there was a wide variety of symptoms and cancer types which facilitates the generalization of our results to cancer survivors in general. For all of the predictive factors, we used validated questionnaires.

The findings were in line with previous research that established the importance of fatigue and physical workload, in addition to diagnosis and treatment, but our study also showed that cancer-related symptoms are highly correlated.

Return to work is dependent on the nature of the social security system and many other social and cultural factors. This certainly influences the absolute rates of and time to return to work. In this study, the measures of association between the predictive factors and outcome measure are relative, comparing risks between subgroups of the cohort. This allows for a generalization across countries.

The interrelated nature of the cancer-related symptoms makes it difficult to disentangle potential relationships with the outcome measure. Even though the correlation coefficients were all far below 0.90, beyond which there would be too much collinearity, the statistical model yielded different results when all cancer-related symptoms were entered at the same time.32 We chose a stepwise regression analysis in the final model to decide which predictors were most strongly related to the time taken to return to work. Due to multicollinearity, this result is arbitrary for cancer-related symptoms. Since fatigue is a component of many cancer-related symptoms, we feel that to improve the return to work rates fatigue should still be an important focus of attention.

Our study was based on a theoretical model that hypothesized that apart from fatigue, more cancer-related symptoms would influence the return to work. This turned out not to be the case for sleep problems, emotional distress, and cognitive dysfunction. For cognitive dysfunction, studies are needed that focus on different types of chemotherapy, resulting in specific cognitive dysfunction that may have remained obscured in our heterogeneous sample. Of the subject-related factors, this study only confirmed the previously found impact of age on the time taken to return to work.

To better predict problems encountered in the resumption of work, we need more knowledge about the process of returning to work in general. Qualitative studies could yield more insight into the processes that take place. These processes may be cognitive, e.g., "work will harm my health," may depend on social relations, e.g., "my spouse thinks it is too early to go back to work," or be dependent on the advice of the treating clinicians, e.g., "rest is the best cure for fatigue."

In our review of the return to work of cancer patients, we found that the percentage of cancer survivors varied from 30 to 93%, with a mean rate of 62% across all of the studies.15 The findings of our study compare favorably with these results. However, patients who were very ill, in particular, and those who died were lost to follow-up. We cannot exclude that with the inclusion of some of these patients the rate of return to work would have been lower and the predictive value of the clinical factors could have been higher. This positive finding may also have been influenced by patients going back to work too soon. However, job satisfaction scores were relatively stable over time, with a score of 92.4 (S.D. 13.0) in the assessment taken prior to diagnosis, and a slightly, but not significantly, lower mean score of 89.7 (S.D. 17.5) for all of the survivors who had returned to work at 18 months following the first day of sick leave (range 0-100, where a higher score indicates more job satisfaction).

This study showed that cancer-related symptoms have an impact on social functioning with the important consequence of limiting the resumption of work, independent of other clinical and personal predictors. Curt advocated clear and well-established guidelines for the management of fatigue by physicians. The findings from our study underscore the need for such guidelines.28


Since the review, a number of papers and reports have been published that seem to underline the results from our prospective study.2,3,9,33-35 In all, these papers underline the idea that now cancer patients do a lot better and that the next step should be taken. Job discrimination is no longer the issue. One editorial even speaks of "myth busting" referring to breast cancer patients having problems upon their return to work and referring to the excellent work of Elisabeth Maunsell and colleagues.11 In a recent meta-analysis of employment of childhood cancer survivors, we found similar results. Employment in general was lower among survivors but varied with the type of cancer. For most types of cancer we could not show a difference in employment except for cancer that involved the central nervous system. For this group the risk of unemployment was almost five times higher among cancer survivors than among their healthy controls. A surprise finding from the meta-analysis was that survivors in North American studies did less well than those in European studies. It could be an indication that job discrimination in the USA has still more impact than in Europe.36

A recent IOM report speaks of a survivor care plan to better involve health workers in the care and attention for cancer survivors. In such a plan attention should be paid to interventions to improve return to work.37


From the studies about risk factors we can conclude that experiencing a life-threatening disease like cancer has a big impact on working life for a couple of years at least. However, the variation in how patients deal with this life event is great. Some do not report sick at all and some never return to work. Depending on the diagnosis, the average number of months of being on sick leave is around 5 months.3 This indicates a need for support in the return to work process. However, we do not know of any research in which this need has been studied and if patients experience a need for such support. It is our impression that when patients are offered support for return to work by their treating physicians this is highly appreciated. There is an urgent need for studies that evaluate interventions. In advance of such studies we will indicate what could be suitable interventions and outcomes to be studied. We will end with tangible advice that can be given to cancer survivors to improve the return to work process.


In general, there are few theories that can guide physicians in how they can best support cancer survivors to return to work. Sickness absence and return to work after sickness can be viewed from many different points of view. There are many studies about factors that in general influence sickness absence in workplaces.38,39 The economic impact of sickness absence and disability at the societal and company level is high. That is probably the reason that many studies address the economic or financial aspects of sickness absence. However, as mentioned before, especially return to work can be seen as a problem at the individual level as well. For most patients, work is an important aspect of their life and loss of work usually entails a substantial decrease in income. Thus, return to work can be seen as part of rehabilitation activities. In comparison to sickness absence in general or in comparison to the sickness absence related to back pain, the sickness absence of cancer survivors is a relatively small proportion and economically less important because the numbers are much smaller.

From a theoretical point of view, the WHO model of functioning indicates where possibilities for interventions can be found. The WHO explains in its International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health how persons cope with their disability (Figure 2). The model states that working is one of the roles in which one can participate in society. Participation is strongly related to the ability to perform activities, which in turn is determined by the proper functioning of the body. Diseases or disorders affect this triad, possibly leading to disability depending on the conditions. Important conditional factors are of environmental and of personal origin.16 The model offers three opportunities for intervention.

The first is better treatment. With successful treatment, the disease and its consequences will disappear. For example, a change in the treatment of heart disease greatly influenced its related disability in the 1970s and 1980s.40

Secondly, the environmental factors provide an opportunity for intervention. Adapting the environment can make the difference between retirement due to ill health or living an ordinary working life. The science of ergonomics has evolved around the concept of adapting the environment to workers.41 This has always been a strong incentive for occupational physicians to advocate workplace adaptations to prevent disability. Usually these interventions are beyond the scope of clinicians.

Thirdly, the person-related factors, such as attitudes and opinions, form a natural focus for intervention for the clinician.

Studies that have investigated the prognosis of return to work among patients suffering from a variety of diseases confirm the idea gained from the WHO ICF model.42-45 From our research we know that among cancer survivors the severity of the disease in terms of impact on physical integrity has the biggest influence on the

Figure 2. Points of Intervention Based on the WHO Model of Functioning.

time needed to return to work, but environmental factors and person-related factors play an additional role. There is still a lack of knowledge on person-related factors in return to work studies among cancer survivors. We know that for example the expectations patients with musculoskeletal disorders and mental health problems have about recovery predict the return to work best.46 These are even better than the doctors' prediction.47 This finding is in line with the model of Illness Representations. This theory states that the functioning of the patient is dependent on the idea that the patient has of the illness. The most important features of the illness representation are the cause (biologically versus functional), the time-line (long versus short), and the consequences for functioning. If the illness representations are not based on realistic medical knowledge, they can also be called misconceptions.48 Based on this model, Petrie could show that long-term sickness absence was more frequent among patients with myocardial infarction that had misconceptions of their disease.49 Subsequently, he could show in a randomized controlled trial that if these misconceptions of the illness could be changed by a cognitive behavioral intervention, the return to work rate was twice as fast.50 We feel that this could also be a promising approach for cancer, where misconceptions about the disease and its consequences were very common until recently. However, we don't know of any research that has studied the prognostic value of cancer survivors' expectations or illness representations.


Since the prognosis of return to work among cancer survivors is relatively good, it is not immediately clear what the outcome of interventions should be.

We would like to argue that, since there is still a gap in employment outcome for survivors compared to healthy controls, trying to narrow this gap should be the first target of interventions. Further, it is not clear how big the gap is in various countries. Employment status of back pain patients has been shown to be dependent on social security policies. In countries where it is easy to dismiss an employee because of health reasons, it will be more difficult to retain work.51 For cancer survivors, apparently, more or different attention for the return to work is needed than currently given. In our research in the Netherlands, we found that in more than 50% of the cases treating physicians had not discussed work with their patients. On the other hand, the physicians that participated in our studies were surprised to find out how well their questions about working life were received by their patients.52 In many countries, return to work policies create considerable confusion among physicians, which might explain why there is this apparent lack of attention for this problem.53

A second outcome to address should be a shorter time to return to work. There is some evidence that the longer employees are off work the more difficult it is to return. In other words, with long spells of sickness absence the chance of returning to work diminishes over time. Although there is a wide variation, for many cancer survivors the time to return to work is in the magnitude of several months' absence from work. Therefore, it would be beneficial if the time to return to work could be shortened or otherwise optimized.

A third outcome could be to decrease the number of cancer survivors that stop working for health reasons. In Maunsell's study, the 20% of cancer survivors that stopped working did so because they said they wanted to themselves. Half of them said that this was because of health reasons.3 The precise meaning of this statement is unclear, but it fits well with the notion that perceived disability is the best predictor of return to work. It could be that the stopping because of health reasons was based on a misconception that it is more beneficial for health to stop working.


We can think of three possible pathways to influence the return to work outcomes. First of all, less invasive treatment and less side effects of treatment will also improve return to work rates. Scandinavian research showed that breast conserving surgery and day surgery was related to significantly shorter sick leave than more invasive surgery and overnight care respectively.54 Since the search for better treatment methods is good in itself we can leave this to the oncologists.

The second pathway would be through the better treatment of cancer-related symptoms. Fatigue and depression seem to be the most promising ones since they predicted return to work independent of diagnosis and treatment in our research. Also here, there has been substantial research effort directed at ameliorating the cancer-related symptoms.55-57 However, none of these studies took into account that this could also lead to better functioning including return to work. We would advocate that those who study interventions to improve cancer-related symptoms use return to work as an outcome measure. For practitioners, we suggest that cancer survivors be referred to rehabilitation programs that address fatigue and depression.

The third pathway would be to look at other prognostic factors. If patient expectations are predictive for return to work also for cancer survivors, programs should be devised to address misconceptions. This seems a promising approach but it has to be substantiated by research before it can be applied in practice.

The fourth and most practical pathway would be to improve current return to work strategies and to apply existing knowledge from other areas to cancer survivors as advocated by Feuerstein.58 From research in the back pain area we learned that patients perceive a lack of instructions how to cope with symptoms and limitations in daily practice. Since work is not very often discussed with cancer patients we assume that this is similar for cancer survivors. Therefore, we made a list of items based on rehabilitation principles with the most concrete instructions that we could find for return to work.

The first principle we used was that of goal-oriented rehabilitation.59 Goal setting provides the opportunity to work toward a concrete goal and being able to evaluate the activities against the goal that was set. In terms of return to work this means that we advise cancer survivors to make a concrete plan for work resumption. The plan should contain the tasks to be taken up first and the dates when this is going to be done.

The second principle is that of graded activity. There is some evidence from back pain and chronic fatigue research and some underpinning with cognitive behavioral theory that gradually increasing the activities according to a preset fixed scheme is beneficial. The final goal of return to work is set consistent with the patient's wishes.60,61 However, this fixed plan contrasts with the often expressed wish of cancer patients to work at the moments they feel well and to stop working when they have an off day. A worthwhile research question would be to determine whether the graded activity approach is more beneficial for return to work then a simple volitional approach. Patients sometimes are afraid to make plans because they feel so unsure that they feel it is impossible to predict what would be a reasonable goal to set. To overcome this problem we advocate the drawing up simultaneously of a second scheme or plan that can be used when the first plan proves to be too ambitious.

The third principle that we use is that of involving the supervisor right from the start to facilitate at least temporarily work accommodations. The use of participatory ergonomics which seems to be successful in return to work of back pain patients should assist cancer survivors as well.62

The principles were translated into a 10-step plan for return to work that we tested among cancer survivors at the radiotherapy department (Table 1). In general, the plan was appreciated except for the idea of having a simultaneous second scheme. This item seemed difficult to understand. Not all patients were keen on making a fixed scheme because they felt it was better to start working according to how they felt. Nevertheless, it seems a tool that meets the wish of more concrete instructions.


Much has changed over the course of 30 years. Improved diagnosis and treatment has increased survival and increased attention to societal reintegration. In the early years, attention focused almost exclusively on job discrimination, legal, and insurance issues. While these continue to challenge the cancer survivor the focus of attention has shifted. Attention to job discrimination and legal issues has resulted in less discrimination and some improvement in insurance coverage.33 Research has expanded to other factors that hinder the return to work of cancer patients.14,15 While the disease itself and its treatment still have the most impact on the return

1. Schedule an appointment with your occupational health physician as the professional who is there to help you with return to work.

2. Keep in contact with your employer. You will need him or her to get back to work and to realize work accommodations if needed.

3. Keep in contact with your coworkers. Go to work to see them and tell them how you are doing.

4. Draw up a return-to-work plan in consultation with your supervisor and occupational physician. For all involved, supervisor and colleagues, the plan will make your situation more transparent and at ease.

5. Start to return to work before full recovery, but start with a very limited number of hours. Starting with a small number of hours brings the reassurance that this will succeed.

6. Make sure the return-to-work plan encompasses the date and number of hours of the start, which days of the week will be worked, the timing of the expansion of hours, the tasks and number of hours of this expansion, and the proposed date of full return to work.

7. How to set a goal for the time needed for complete return to work? It is not possible to give a concrete advice, because it depends on the number and the severity of the complaints and the nature of the work how long it will take.

8. Evaluate the return-to-work plan with your supervisor every 2 weeks. Adjust the plan according to your evaluation.

9. If unsure, draw up a second, less ambitious return-to-work plan that may be used if the first plan fails.

10. An example of a return to work plan is given in which gradual return to work is scheduled for a nurse who has survived breast cancer in 12 weeks time starting with two times 4 hours per week.

to work of cancer patients successfully, managing cancer-related symptoms such as fatigue and depression can also influence work resumption. Physically demanding work makes it more difficult to resume work. There is a need to study other prognostic factors such as patients' expectations of functioning. They form a potential focus for intervention.

There is still a lack of interventions and evaluation of intervention studies. It can be expected that better treatment leads to an increase in return to work. Improved treatment of cancer-related symptoms should also improve time to return to work. However, progress from research has been impeded by weak research designs and haphazard measurement of work outcomes.9

In conclusion, cancer has a distinct impact on work outcomes. The issue of return to work of cancer patients is an important one which needs to be better addressed by treating physicians and other health care workers. Research should not only be directed at prognostic factors but also at developing and evaluating interventions that enhance return to work with more rigorous research designs.

Evidence-based guidelines for return to work of cancer survivors must await specific clinical trials, however at this point, can be best based on general rehabilitation principles. These include: establish concrete goals, increase workload gradually according to a fixed plan, and involve management for work accommodations.

These guidelines could form the basis of the earlier mentioned survivor care plan to better involve health care workers in the care and attention for cancer survivors. In addition, such a plan should incorporate interventions to improve return to work. Because, despite obvious improvements, cancer patients still face problems in the workplace and they have to cope with the aftermath of a diagnosis and treatment which has a significant impact upon their lives and well-being. A thorough survivor care plan should aid patients in making the transition back to work as uncomplicated as possible.


The research described in this chapter was supported by a grant from the Dutch Cancer Society (AMC 97-1385).


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3. Maunsell, E., Drolet, M., Brisson, J., Brisson, C., Masse, B., and Deschenes, L. Work situation after breast cancer: Results from a population-based study. J. Natl. Cancer Inst. 2004; 96(24): 1813-22.

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5. Institute of Medicine. Cancer survivorship facts and figures. http://www iom edu/CMS/28312/ 4931/30869/30886 aspx [ 2006 [cited 2006Jan. 23].

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