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Workplace Giving

Breast cancer in the workplace – making difficult conversations easier

When someone is told, ‘you have breast cancer’, it’s the first in a series of difficult conversations they face. As they try to come to terms with their diagnosis, they often also need to decide how to talk about it with the people around them. This may include telling their employer.

This is often a difficult conversation, which BCNA is committed to helping make easier, thanks to the support of our Workplace Giving community. Together, we’re helping employees and employers tackle the difficult conversations in the workplace that come along with a breast cancer diagnosis.

BCNA has heard from many women about their experiences of telling an employer about their breast cancer diagnosis. For some, their employer was compassionate, supportive and understanding, ensuring the employee could focus on their health and recovery. Other employers left their staff member feeling unsupported, side-lined or, in some cases, unemployed.

BCNA believes it is unacceptable for people diagnosed with breast cancer to face additional challenges like these when the cost of breast cancer is already so high – physically, emotionally and financially. That’s why our Financial Impacts Working Group is exploring ways to work with employers to ensure they are well-equipped to support employees through a breast cancer diagnosis and help people return to work when they’re ready.

We have also developed resources to empower people with breast cancer to know their options in the workplace and we continue to advocate on behalf of those with breast cancer who may be discriminated against in the workplace based on their diagnosis.

Rina’s story – when a workplace gets it right

Rina Portet was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2014 after a car accident. Scans revealed tumours in her spine. She was 38 years old and pregnant with her third child, who was born at full term four months later.

At the time of her diagnosis, Rina was working for a baby food company, consisting of only six staff.

“My diagnosis was not something I could hide because I was in hospital in a neck brace and couldn't move. My employer knew my diagnosis from when it happened, and they were extremely supportive, even though I had to stop working on that day. One of my colleagues set up a meal roster and was organising friends and family online to cook us dinners.”

Having a supportive and understanding employer helped Rina in her recovery.

“When I was diagnosed I felt like there was a ring around me that closed. Everyone supported me by taking care of my kids, cooking dinners, and that went on for six months or more. Work was part of that whole support network. It became very personal with my work and my work colleagues because they knew what I was going through.”

Rina is now self-employed and is thankful for the flexibility it offers so she can attend all her medical appointments and focus on her health and pursuing her interests. She urges all organisations to provide people diagnosed with breast cancer with the support they need.

“Support the employee as much as you can. Don’t pretend the cancer doesn’t exist. Everyone is different. I’m very open, but I know that many other people with breast cancer may not want to talk about it. Respect the person’s boundaries. If the employee wants to talk about it, be as open to that as you can, because it’s such a life-changing diagnosis.”

Lisa’s story – when a workplace gets it wrong

Lisa’s experience with her workplace was very different. She had been working as an HR manager for an organisation for three years when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and needed to stop working to focus on her recovery.

While her colleagues were very understanding, Lisa didn’t receive the support she needed from her employer.

“The lowest point for me was when I was ready to go back to work. It was after 11 months of treatment, including two surgeries, six months of chemotherapy and five weeks of radiotherapy. I was feeling good and looking forward to returning to work and earning money again. I was denied returning ​to my role part-time, despite having medical clearance to do so.”

Instead, Lisa ​was offered and accepted an extension to her unpaid leave for another year. When she was ready to return to full-time work, her role was made redundant.

“​I've heard of some terrific ways people have been supported by their workplaces like maintaining salaries and giving extra leave. I didn't ask for or get one extra day of leave. I got nothing and felt like an annoyance.”

She says her diagnosis made her feel physically, emotionally and financially vulnerable.

“Being treated so badly by my workplace added to this and also made me feel professionally vulnerable and low in confidence. It was the worst time to have to look for another job.”

Unfortunately, Lisa’s experience is far too common. If you’d like to help BCNA continue to provide information, support and a voice for all Australians affected by breast cancer to reduce the financial burden of breast cancer and make difficult conversations a lot easier, consider joining our Workplace Giving community.

The best way to support our work to reduce the financial impact of breast cancer is through yours. 

  1. Visit BCNA’s Downloadable Resources webpage to access BCNA’s employer guide for supporting an employee through a breast cancer diagnosis. 
  2. Communicate your commitment to supporting your employees should they ever be diagnosed with breast cancer and empower them with the information to ask the right questions.
  3. Support Breast Cancer Network Australia through your organisation’s workplace giving program and help BCNA support and empower the 20,000+ women diagnosed with breast cancer this year to make informed decisions regarding their finances and employment. 

Other helpful resources

  1. Financial and practical support
  2. The financial impact of breast cancer
  3. Tips to help you