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What to expect

There are different types of breast cancer and therefore, different types of treatment. The physical, emotional and mental side effects of these treatments vary from person to person. Even if you have had employees who have been affected by cancer in the past, it’s important to remember that each person is different.

Most days I would go to work, come home, head to bed for a few hours, get up and cook dinner for the family, eat and collapse back into bed.

Side effects

Some breast cancer treatments may have side effects and talking about this with your employee will enable you to make necessary adjustments before, during and after treatment. These can include:

  • time away from work for medical appointments and treatments
  • working from home during treatments
  • physical and emotional support to reduce the short- and long-term impact of treatments.
I did struggle with ‘chemo brain’, which was very frustrating, suddenly not knowing how to do things that I had been doing for years.

Your employee may experience some or all of the following side effects. 

  • Pain and discomfort: this can continue for a long while after treatment and can sometimes last for months or years. If your employee is experiencing pain, they may find it difficult to carry out certain tasks at work.
  • Lymphoedema: a persistent swelling of the arm or breast, which can develop after breast cancer treatment. Your employee will need to avoid certain tasks at work that either cause or aggravate this condition.
  • Cognitive changes ('chemo brain'/'chemo fog'): chemotherapy can cause issues such as difficulty thinking clearly and problems with memory and attention. These changes often can last for months or longer. These frustrating changes can affect your employee’s confidence at work (and in social situations) so it’s important to be aware and offer support where appropriate.
  • Emotional side effects: some people find it difficult to live up to others' expectations. Some might feel they should be functioning at the same level as they did before their diagnosis. Others feel highly anxious or depressed. These feelings are common, and it is important your employee feels supported in the workplace.
  • Fatigue: extreme tiredness is a possible side effect of breast cancer treatment. Offering support through flexible working hours, allowing work from home, and support with certain tasks can help your employee to better manage fatigue.

If your employee is diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer

If your employee has metastatic breast cancer (also known as advanced or secondary breast cancer), it means the cancer cells have spread from the original site in the breast to other parts of the body, often the bones, lung, liver or, less commonly, the brain.

Fortunately, advances in treatments mean that some people with metastatic breast cancer are now living for many years and choose to stay at work for as long as possible.

By law, an employee with metastatic breast cancer should be allowed to work for as long as they want to. As their employer, you can assist them by making appropriate reasonable adjustments.

If your employee is gradually becoming weaker, it can be difficult to manage or know what to do. In this case, an occupational therapist can assist and offer recommendations.

Colleagues in the workplace may find this time upsetting. Be sure to communicate with your employees so they know how to access counselling or employee assistance programs (EAP) that are available within your organisation.

Useful information