Pixie McKenna: Addressing cancer in the workplace

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It's estimated there are now more than 700,000 people of working age living with cancer, making it an issue that employers can no longer afford to ignore.

In his introduction to a new report, Cancer in the workplace: what does it mean for HR?, professor Gordon Wishart, a leading expert in the treatment of breast cancer, refers to cancer as an "epidemic".

Each year around 325,000 people are diagnosed with cancer in the UK, and 160,000 people die from the disease. Just last year the chance of getting cancer in our lifetime was one in three. Macmillan predicted that those rates would rise to one in two by 2020 – but this year Cancer Research UK announced that, according to its research, we have already reached that point for those born after 1960. 

Thankfully, as the report shows, HR professionals are responding positively to this challenge. Ninety-five per cent of those polled said they were in favour of universal cancer checks provided by employers, with annual checking for all staff, and 63% of HR professionals are actively planning to introduce cancer awareness programmes and/or early detection initiatives in their organisation. 

I hope this will happen. NHS data suggests that early diagnosis of all cancers would reduce the cost burden for the UK by as much as £210 million, and would help to improve the chances of survival for more than 52,000 people. Currently, however, health checks offered by the majority of employers have remained essentially unchanged for 15 years – Well-Man and Well-Woman clinics providing generic advice about health.

These clinics are highly unlikely to pick up cancer. To be fair to them, they were never designed to. Only cancer-specific checks, administered by experts, can do this reliably. The call to action for HR professionals is not just about introducing cancer checks, however. It’s about developing a complete anti-cancer strategy. The report proposes a five-point plan: 

1. Have ready-made processes. Don't wait for cancer cases to become a people or management issue before devising a policy. 

2. Help with early detection. 

3. Build in flexibility. Employees living with cancer need to know they have the support of their organisation. 

4. Keep a focus on wellbeing. All health and wellbeing activities are important for avoiding cancer, and helping with recovery. 

5. Be patient with returners. People who survive cancer often return to their everyday lives with a wholly different perspective.

We need to change our own attitudes to cancer too. It is no longer an automatic death sentence; about 50% of people with cancer will survive, and the odds increase significantly if cancer is detected early. While we may not have a cure yet, we have made steady progress in our treatment of it – to the extent that it has been legally recognised as a disability. 

The recent history of breast cancer treatment has shown that we can turn the tide. While incidences of breast cancer are rising, the number of deaths from it have been steadily falling. Increased awareness and earlier detection have been key factors in this success, and if we can replicate this pattern across all major cancers, we stand to reclaim thousands of lives that otherwise would be lost.

Dr Pixie McKenna is clinical adviser of general medical services at Check4Cancer, and a resident GP on the Channel 4 series Embarrassing Bodies

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