Cancer: the facts

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The workplace can be a key battleground in the fight against cancer, particularly if there are potential risks from ionising radiation and carcinogenic substances. Jon Herbert reports on the key facts.

World Cancer Day

Each year some 9.6 million people die from cancer, the second leading cause of death worldwide.

World Cancer Day on 4 February has several aims. One is to raise cancer awareness; another is to call for better prevention, detection and treatment for everyone. A key objective is to reduce fear, dispel myths and change behaviours and attitudes.

Knowledge about cancer is growing rapidly, with extraordinary breakthroughs in medicine, diagnostics and science helping to reduce risk factors, increase prevention and improve diagnosis, treatment and care.

As a result, more than a third of cancer cases — many associated with the workplace — are now preventable. Another third can be cured if detected early and treated properly. National leadership on policies, legislations, investment and innovation is the key to accelerated progress, the organisers say.

While cancer awareness is vital in the UK, the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) and other UN agencies recognise the need for a much wider global commitment. Some 65% of cancer deaths are in the world’s least developed regions. However, the organisers note that even in a higher income country, inequities remain in lower-income, indigenous, immigrant, refugee and rural communities.

It is estimated that 3.7 million lives could be saved annually by well-resourced prevention, early detection and treatment strategies.

What is cancer?

Cancer starts when changes in a group of normal body cells cause uncontrolled, abnormal tumour growth, although leukaemia (blood cancer) is the exception. Untreated, tumours can spread to normal tissue through the bloodstream and lymphatic systems and affect the digestive, nervous and circulatory systems, or release hormones affecting body function.

What are the workplace cancer hazards?

Manmade ionising radiation sources can cause cancer, including radon, X-rays, gamma rays and other forms of high-energy radiation.

Workers can be at risk from exposure to cancer-causing substances, eg chemical dye industry workers have a higher incidence of bladder cancer. Asbestos risks are well known.

Advice on supporting employees with cancer from Health Assured CEO and wellbeing expert, David Price

For many women and men facing cancer or a similar medical diagnosis, maintaining a sense of normality is essential in their fight — and continuing with work can provide this. Therefore, it’s vital that employers know how to offer the right support and protection to their staff.

When employers become aware of an employee’s cancer diagnosis, they should arrange a private meeting with them to discuss their health and requirements. While this kind of conversation is never easy, it’s important that both parties can be open and discuss the best way to support the employee at work — invite them to bring a friend or colleague along if it helps them feel more comfortable.

Useful things to discuss at the meeting include:

  • the diagnosis

  • whether anyone else in the business needs to be notified

  • the likely impact of forthcoming treatment

  • if any time off needs to be agreed immediately

  • whether any changes to the employee’s work are needed at this stage.

The law on cancer

Cancer is classed as a disability under the Equality Act 2010, so employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to remove any disadvantages the employee is facing because of their illness.

This could mean making adjustments to:

  • the employee’s work

  • any equipment they use

  • any working practices which put them at a disadvantage.

While the above is all well and good, employers also need to recognise that the employee will face different challenges at different stages of their illness, so adjustments agreed upon diagnosis may need reassessing when they’re undertaking treatment, etc.

Therefore, it’s crucial to keep communicating with the employee, so managers can understand the changing disadvantages they’re facing and be able to review and adapt any adjustments and support.

Leave and returning to work

Where cancer treatment has resulted in the employee needing periods of time off work, it can be daunting for them to come back full time. Don’t put pressure on the employee to return at any point — but once they’re fit to come back, it may be beneficial for both parties to agree a phased or flexible return to work.

Not only does this get the employee back into the workplace, it doesn’t place extra pressure or stress on them to return full time too soon, which in turn reduces the possibility of them taking further time off due to illness. Support and communication are key at this stage of their return to ensure the employee can continue performing their role in the long-term.

CANCER: THE FACTS

What causes cancer?

Most cancers result from exposure to a number of different causal factors. Some cannot be modified although others can be, by reducing behavioural and dietary risks.

Modifiable risk factors include the following.

  • Alcohol — all alcoholic drinks increase the risk of six groups of cancers: bowel (colorectal), breast, mouth, pharynx and larynx (mouth and throat), oesophageal, liver and stomach.

  • Weight — being overweight or obese is linked to an increased risk of developing 12 different cancers, including bowel and pancreatic cancers.

  • Diet and nutrition — diets high in red meats, processed meats, salted foods and low in fruits and vegetables have an impact on the risk of cancer, particularly colorectum, nasopharynx and stomach.

  • Physical activity — regular activity helps to reduce excess body fat and cancer risks, especially colon, breast and endometrial cancers risks.

  • Tobacco — cigarette smoke contains at least 80 different cancer-causing substances.

Non-modifiable risk factors include: 

  • age

  • carcinogens

  • genetics 

  • the immune system.

Certain viruses, bacteria and rare parasites can cause cell changes, leading to cancer.

What are the signs of cancer?

Symptoms are varied but can include one or more of the following:

  • unusual lumps or swelling

  • coughing, breathlessness or difficulty swallowing

  • bowel habit changes

  • unexpected bleeding

  • unexplained weight loss

  • fatigue

  • pain or ache

  • new mole or changes to a mole

  • complications with urinating

  • unusual breast changes

  • appetite loss

  • sores or ulcers that won’t heal

  • heartburn or indigestion

  • heavy night sweats.

How do you treat cancer?

Identifying some cancers early improves successful treatment with fewer (or less significant) side effects. Cost-effective tests exist for colorectal, breast, cervical and oral cancers. Further tests are being developed for other cancers.

Doctors can provide guidance on national recommendations for vaccinations, testing and screenings.

Treatment depends on cancer type, location, metastasis and general health. Treatments may include:

  • surgery

  • chemotherapy

  • radiotherapy

  • hormone therapy

  • immunotherapy

  • gene therapy.

For detailed legal information and advice on cancer-causing substances at work, see your Carcinogens topic.

Last reviewed 1 February 2019

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