Working with cancer: A pilot study of work participation among cancer survivors in Western Sydney

Background: Around 40% of cancers occur in working-age adults. Improvements in screening and treatment mean that most are expected to live years beyond their diagnosis. However, many experience persistent impairments from treatment such as fatigue, cognitive difficulties, and emotional distress. Work is a key occupation for this population and is an important occupational performance area for occupational therapy intervention. However, little is understood about working with cancer in the Australian context.

Aim: To pilot a survey to identify factors associated with work participation among cancer survivors, and to determine if the survey collected useful information to build on for further study.

Methods: A cross-sectional online survey was developed to measure work participation and factors associated with successful work. Study participants aged 20-65 years, employed at diagnosis, with basic English and computer literacy were recruited from a cancer clinic in Western Sydney over a 3-month period.

Results: Nineteen survey responses were received and analysed. Participants had returned or remained at work (n = 9, 47.4%), unsuccessfully attempted to return to work (RTW; n = 2, 10.5%), or were on leave from work (n = 8, 42.1%). Of those on leave, most did not plan to RTW (n = 6, 31.6%). Fatigue (n = 15, 78.9%), difficulty concentrating (n = 8, 42.1%), memory issues (n = 8, 42.1%), stomach upset (n = 7, 36.8%), sleep disturbance, (n = 7, 36.8%), and psychological distress (n = 7, 36.8%) impacted perceived work ability. Physically demanding work (n = 8, 42.1%), length of the workday (n = 6, 31.6%), productivity demands (n = 5, 26.3%), and commuting (n = 4, 21.1%) were challenging to manage after cancer. A supportive workplace was a facilitator for work.

Conclusion: Cancer survivors in Western Sydney may face challenges engaging in work after treatment. Work participation may be influenced by side effects of treatment, difficulty performing work demands, and the work environment. Services may be needed for cancer survivors to navigate RTW.

Keywords: cancer survivor; employment; occupational therapy; pilot projects; return to work; work rehabilitation.