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A study looking at how we can help people go back to work after treatment for cancer

This study looked at the factors that may affect when people go back to work after treatment for cancer. The study was supported by Cancer Research UK.

Over the years, treatments for cancer have been getting better. These improvements mean that people are living longer, and more people go back to work after they finish treatment.
Going back to work can be very positive and can help people move on after their treatment. But it can be difficult for a number of reasons and the length of time it takes to get back to work varies.

In this study, the researchers asked people how long it was before they went back to work after cancer treatment. The people taking part had all had treatment for breast cancer, a gynaecological cancer, head and neck cancer or cancer of the urinary system (urological cancer) such as prostate cancer.

The researchers looked at a number of different factors to see what affected the length of time it took for people to return to work.

Recruitment

Start 01/01/2006
End 30/08/2007

Phase

Other

Summary of results

The researchers found that about 9 out of 10 people in this study went back to work within a year following cancer treatment. The things that affected the length of time this took were different depending on the type of cancer people had.  People who said they were able to do more physically returned sooner.  

But the opinions and beliefs people had about their cancer (their perceptions) also affected how long it took them to return to work.

In total, 290 people filled in a questionnaire after finishing treatment for breast cancer, a gynaecological cancer, head and neck cancer, or a urological cancer such as prostate cancer

The people taking part were between 28 and 65 years of age. The researchers aimed to see how they were getting on 6 months and 1 year later.

  • They found that 6 people didn’t take time off work to have treatment
  • They didn’t have information about when 4 people returned to work

But by following up everybody else, they found that the average length of time before people returned to work was

  • 30 weeks for women who had breast cancer
  • Just under 18 weeks for women who had a gynaecological cancer
  • 5 weeks for men who had a urological cancer
  • Over 18 weeks for people who had cancer of the head or neck

They found that 23 people who took part in the study had not gone back to work a year later. The percentage of people not back at work after a year was higher in the group of people who’d had head and neck cancer than in the other 3 groups.

Some of the findings showed how working patterns can affect how quickly people return to work. In the breast cancer group, women who worked fulltime returned to work sooner than those who did not. In the urological cancer group, men who were able to undertake flexible work were likely to return sooner.

The researchers asked people to fill in questionnaires that help to assess their quality of life and how anxious or depressed they felt. They found that the scores from these questionnaires were quite similar across the different types of cancer. But they did find some other differences between the groups.

Of the people who’d had treatment for a urological cancer, men who had brachytherapy for prostate cancer returned to work the soonest. But men who had constipation as a side effect of treatment took longer to go back.

Of the women who’d had treatment for a gynaecological cancer, those who had radiotherapy tended to take longer to return to work than those who didn’t

The researchers also found that how people felt about their cancer affected when they were likely to return to work. As an example, women who’d had treatment for breast cancer returned to work sooner if they felt they had control over the effect having cancer had on their work. Whereas women with gynaecological cancer were slower to return to work if they felt that their treatment would affect their ability to work.

The study team say their findings highlight the importance of peoples’ perceptions about cancer and treatment. They suggest that helping people to change some of these perceptions may mean they can return to work sooner.

We have based this summary on information from the team who ran the trial. The information they sent us has been reviewed by independent specialists (peer reviewed) and published in a medical journal. The figures we quote above were provided by the trial team. We have not analysed the data ourselves.

Chief Investigator

Dr E Grunfeld

Supported by

Cancer Research UK
Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust
King's College London
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Updated: 16 May 2013