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October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which serves as a reminder for employers to support routine screening and education on cancer risk.
Early detection and advances in treatment have improved breast cancer survival rates. However, cancer screening rates have declined dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. A study published April 29, 2021, in JAMA Oncology estimates there were 3.9 million fewer breast cancer screenings performed in the U.S. in 2020 than in 2019. When screening is delayed, cancer becomes more advanced, decreasing the likelihood of a favorable treatment outcome.
Breast cancer risk cannot be easily discounted. It is the most common cancer in the world, accounting for 12 percent of all new annual cases, according to the World Health Organization. It is the second most commonly occurring cancer among American women, exceeded only by skin cancer. Men can get breast cancer, too, but occurrence rates among men are far lower than they are for women. Only 5-10 percent of individuals diagnosed with breast cancer have a family history of the disease.
In addition to human suffering, breast cancer takes a toll in other ways, including the cost of direct annual medical care and work productivity loss.
An employee with breast cancer may be unable to perform essential tasks because of treatments, illness, physical discomfort or emotional distress. A cancer survivor may become disabled and never return to work. Cancer survivors with another chronic condition, such as diabetes or heart disease, are more likely to suffer from worse functional status, higher lost productivity and worse employment status than individuals with only a history of cancer or one chronic condition, according to research on “survivorship burdens” published in the Journal of Cancer Policy.)
When an employee is undergoing breast cancer treatment, it’s important for employers to accommodate any limitations they may have. Temporary job accommodations may include schedule changes to allow time for treatment, modifying physically demanding tasks or providing tools to help reduce upper-body exertion.
Breast cancer cannot be prevented, but it’s possible to reduce cancer risk and related mortality. Because early detection improves health outcomes, women are advised to do monthly self-checks and get periodic mammograms based on their age and health history. Breast cancer cells often form a tumor that can be seen on an X-ray or felt as a lump.
It’s important to get a medical exam when a lump is detected in the breast or armpit. Other warning signs include tissue thickening or swelling, apparent skin dimpling, nipple discharge or inversion. Breast cancer patients often need to miss work to obtain treatment, which may include surgery, radiation, hormone therapy, chemotherapy and other targeted interventions. The treatment plan depends on the type of breast cancer that is diagnosed.
Good nutrition and physical activity help lower the risk of breast cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends staying at a healthy weight by balancing food intake with physical activity. Adults are advised to get at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity each week (or a combination of these). It’s also advisable to not smoke and limit alcohol consumption to lower cancer risk.
Breast Cancer Awareness Month provides an opportunity for employers to engage employees in wellness challenges and help them respond appropriately to breast cancer diagnoses. Studies show that employees listen when co-workers share survival stories and employers initiate fact-based awareness campaigns.
The color pink is a universal symbol of breast cancer awareness. Pink can be incorporated in workplace awareness campaigns throughout the month. For example, employers can “think pink” by organizing a pink-themed event or decorating contest; distributing pink ribbons to employees to pin on their shirts; putting pink beans in a jar and awarding a prize to the person who comes closest to guessing the amount; setting out a pink container to collect voluntary donations for breast cancer research.
Charity Watch and Charity Navigator list organizations that are considered good stewards of donations.
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