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Maritime Study Aims To Help Working Women Diagnosed With Cancer

For years, Lynne Robinson has worked as an associate professor at Dalhousie University. Now, she’s teamed up with Saint Mary’s University to study an issue close to her heart.
“Like so many people, my mom had breast cancer, and my sister had breast cancer, so it has personal meaning for me,” she says. “I want to see some changes happen.”

Robinson is part of a research team at SMU hoping to help working women diagnosed with breast cancer.
The Work Wellness Team has created a partnership between cancer survivors, employers, insurance companies and advocacy groups to come up with a healthy workplace response to breast cancer.
“The partnership is coming together of all the stakeholders you can imagine who touch the life, in one way or another, of a woman who’s been diagnosed with breast cancer,” says Lucie Kocum, an associate professor and the team’s project manager.
According to the Canadian Cancer Society, breast cancer is the second deadliest cancer for women, and the most common cancer for women between the ages of 20 and 59. Research indicates that every day, 68 women in Canada are diagnosed with breast cancer, most of whom are of working age.

“One may be surprised that breast cancer survivors have a very high survivability rate,” says Kocum. “Four of out five will survive, but they have a high unemployment rate, and that’s something one wouldn’t expect.”
Statistics show that women are among the majority of people in precarious employment, which includes employment without benefits, shift work and part-time positions.
“These are the positions where, if you get sick, you’re really vulnerable,” says Kocum. “If you’re undergoing breast cancer treatment, the average treatment length is 38 weeks. EI sick leave is 15. If you can’t do your job, and your workplace doesn’t give you that benefit of being able to go and come back, you simply lose your job.”
“It’s challenging, and it’s very individualistic,” says Associate Dean of Research Catherine Loughlin. “We need to be able to give people some tools for having those difficult conversations.”
Loughlin says she hopes the research will help create a toolkit for employers.
“This is a benefit to larger organizations, but definitely to smaller organizations, particularly those who may not have a human resource department that they can rely on,” she says.  “They can look at it and say, OK, what are some guidelines for how to get it right?”
Ultimately, the team hopes to build a strong support system including employers, lawyers, insurers and advocacy groups that help women navigate the experience of returning to work after a breast cancer diagnosis.
“Breast cancer is not a very positive experience. Unemployment is not a very positive experience,” Kocum says. “But the way the partnership is structured right from the very beginning, the way we’re approaching it is, OK, let’s all get together and think about what’s working, and what can we do to improve what’s working.”
The team held their first meeting on July 20, and will continue their research over the next two years.