The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Navigating Cancer Treatment and Recovery Among Low-Wage Workers: First Hand Experiences

Friday, January 18, 2013: 3:30 PM
Executive Center 3B (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Jennifer E. Swanberg, PhD, Professor/Executive Director, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY
Robin Vanderpool, DrPH, Assistant Professor/Deputy Director, University of Kentucky Rural Cancer Prevention Center, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY
Nick Coomer, BA, Project Coordinator, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY
Background and Purpose

 In 2011, the American Cancer Society estimated 230,480 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed among women in the United States. Of those women estimated to be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer, 62% are under the age of 65. In Kentucky, almost 3,500 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. With improvements in screening and advances in cancer treatment, cancer is easier to detect in earlier stages and more patients survive cancer every year. This improvement is leading to an increased number of cancer patients and survivors in today’s workforce. Cancer alone is a difficult obstacle to overcome and deal with, but when added with the pressures of employment and family responsibilities, one can only imagine how difficult it is to cope. Nonetheless, employment has been found to positively influence an employee’s perception of their illness. Studies have found that approximately two-thirds to three-quarters of breast cancer survivors return to work and that flexible working hours, cancer disclosure to colleagues, and paid time off to attend medical appointments were associated with working during treatment. Though research on breast cancer survivorship and employment is increasing, few studies have examined the experiences of breast cancer survivors employed in low-wage, hourly jobs.

To address this gap,  our study's primary objective was to understand how breast cancer survivors employed in low-wage jobs manage their treatment and recovery process within the context of work, family and other life responsibilities.


In-depth interviews were conducted with 40 women in Kentucky newly diagnosed with breast cancer during the last year and who were employed in a low-wage hourly position (less than $15/hour) at the time they were diagnosed. Research participants were recruited through a variety of breast cancer support networks available in Kentucky. Pre-surveys were administered obtaining demographics, cancer and employment history. Open-ended interviews were conducted via telephone and digitally recorded with consent. Interviews were transcribed using Atlas-Ti, analyzed and coded by the research team. Themes and sub-themes were identified and analyzed.


Preliminary analyses indicate that the majority of women continued to work during treatment; however fatigue and pain increased difficultly in concentrating on job tasks. Women employed in jobs that required high physical demands had more difficulty completing work tasks. Access to paid leave and workplace flexibility made it easier to attend medical appointments and receive treatment. Without these organizational resources, women requested job schedule adjustments. Informal workplace support from supervisors and co-workers was instrumental to women staying employed during treatment and recovery. However, several workers expressed hesitancy in revealing their cancer diagnoses to their supervisor for fear of losing their job.

Implications and Conclusions

Cancer and employment research is expanding, but a gap exists regarding low-wage earning breast cancer survivors. This study begins to address that gap by compiling qualitative data on the experiences of low-wage earning breast cancer survivors diagnosed while employed. Further research is required to understand the long-term consequences of employment on workers’ treatment compliance and how cancer treatment may effect employment.