Breast Cancer, Denial and the Work Place


People with cancer are often reluctant to disclose their condition to co-workers. They may feel it’s not anyone’s business (it isn’t) or they may fear there may be a negative reaction from management or co-workers. A new study shows after co-workers learn another has breast cancer there are negative repercussions but it’s because how co-workers treat their own health, not how they interact with the co-worker with cancer.

study of 7,000 female workers from 2002-2004 shows that women working with someone with breast cancer are less likely to get mammograms. Two researchers, economists at the University of Bologna in Italy, obtained records of the employees of a large health related nonprofit which included demographic, professional, socioeconomic and health information, including mammography use and breast cancer occurrences as well as workers’ locations in the work place.

All those in the sample population had health insurance that provided employees with free annual mammograms. Researchers focused on employees who were fifty years old or older because guidance for use of mammograms for women of this age are fairly clear cut – they should get annual mammograms.

Researchers found that,

  • Women who are located closer to the co-worker with breast cancer are about 8% less likely to get mammograms compared to entire group of workers as a whole. Researchers stated the baseline rate of screenings is about 70%.
  • This negative impact is stronger when the case of breast cancer is more severe and more persistent and when the co-workers are not doctors or nurses.
  • Researchers looked at a number of possible explanations and proposed that one driving motivation was that if an employee got a mammogram that produced bad news it could have a negative impact on their job, career and financial situations.

Another explanation may be fear for their own health as well. Most of us don’t want to think about getting cancer, debilitating treatment and the possibility of dying. Those fears may be made more real when a person going through a situation they dread is working in the cubical next to them.

The existence of breast cancer is not affected by how many co-workers have the condition (it’s not contagious) or whether or not a woman gets a mammogram. That mammogram may detect a case of breast cancer at an early, more easily treatable, more survivable stage. But facts, reality and reason have a tough time competing with fear when a nearby co-worker reminds them of their mortality.

Don’t let fear and denial prevent you from getting a cancer screening test, whether it’s a mammogram or something else. Closing your eyes, plugging your ears and refusing to accept the possibility that you may have cancer could be a deadly combination. I can tell you from personal experience it’s much better to find cancer in an early stage instead of when it’s advanced and spread in your body, harder to get rid of and more likely to be fatal.