Most young women back at work within a year of early-stage breast cancer diagnosis

Study says most women have employment after diagnosis, but health problems keep some from finding work or performing jobs
Breast Cancer News
September 19, 2019
Jess Plummer
Reviewed By: 
Joanna L. Fawzy Morales, Esq

A new study from Breast Cancer Research and Treatment surveyed young women 1 year after being diagnosed with early-stage breast cancerinfo-icon to understand how breast cancer affected employment. While most women were employed after active treatment ended, some reported that health problems prevented them from returning to work.


About 90 percent of women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer are still cancer-free 5 years after diagnosisinfo-icon, but researchers don’t often look at the practical matters they face after treatment ends. Issues that impact the emotional, social, medical, and financial wellbeing of women who have been treated for breast cancer should be clearly understood in order for providers to meet their needs.

A breast cancer diagnosis can impact a young woman’s career trajectory, financial stability, and employment opportunities. It is unclear how breast cancer impacts young women’s ability and desire to remain employed or find work after breast cancer treatment. Researchers set out to study employment trends in young women in the year following breast cancer diagnosis to see how it affected their employment experience.


Helping Ourselves, Helping Others: The Young Women’s Breast Cancer Study (YWS) is an ongoing research studyinfo-icon that includes women diagnosed with breast cancer before the age of 40. Study participants were recruited from community and academic hospitals from Colorado, Minnesota, and Massachusetts between 2006 and 2016. Participants completed a baselineinfo-icon survey, two surveys per year for the first 3 years after breast cancer diagnosis, and one survey each year after that.

The young women were asked about their financial status, employment after active treatment, and job satisfaction. Participants were also asked if they needed workplace accommodations to continue working after being diagnosed, and whether their employer was willing to make these accommodations. Participants were asked to describe their job status in the 3 months before breast cancer diagnosis and 1 year after diagnosis. Each woman identified as:

  • Employed full-time
  • Employed part-time
  • Self-employed
  • Unemployed for health reasons
  • Unemployed for non-health reasons
  • Full-time homemaker

Based on these responses, researchers were also able to trace how breast cancer affected young women’s employment. Participants were also asked how they felt about their job.


In total, 911 women with early-stage breast cancer participated in the study. On average, participants were 37 years old at the time of diagnosis. Most were married, held a college degree or greater, and had children.

The study found that most young women had jobs before being diagnosed with breast cancer and 1 year after:

  • 77 percent were employed before diagnosis and at 1 year after.
  • 13 percent were unemployed before diagnosis and at 1 year after.
  • 7 percent were employed before diagnosis but unemployed at 1 year after.
  • 3 percent were unemployed before diagnosis but employed at 1 year after.

Of those employed, 73 percent said they were somewhat or completely satisfied with their job. Also, 93 percent said they did not feel that cancer treatment limited their ability to perform job responsibilities. Many young women reported working for an employer that was willing to make reasonable accommodations to make it easier to perform their job, if needed:

  • 66 percent of the women said their employer made accommodations.
  • 30 percent of the women said accommodations were not needed.
  • 4 percent of the women said their employer did not make accommodations, even though they were needed.

When asked about their financial situation, the majority of the women in this study reported being financially secure:

  • 53 percent had enough money for bills and enough left to buy things they want.
  • 29 percent had enough money for bills but little left for anything extra.
  • 19 percent had enough money for bills but only after cutting back or struggling to pay bills.

Women who were less secure financially were

  • more likely to go from working to not working after diagnosis
  • less likely to report that their job was willing to make accommodations for them
  • more likely to say they were dissatisfied with their job

Women with stageinfo-icon III cancer were more likely to go from working to not working than women with lower stage cancers.

What this means for you

The results of this study are promising for young women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer because they show that a breast cancer diagnosis did not keep many women in this study from remaining employed. In fact, over 75 percent of women were employed before their diagnosis and remained employed 1 year later.

Of the young women who reported being employed before diagnosis but unemployed 1 year later, half stated that health reasons were the reason for their unemployment. This finding shows that a breast cancer diagnosis may leave some young women unable to work or seek employment. It is important to mention that young women diagnosed with a higher stage of breast cancer and young women with greater financial stressinfo-icon were more likely to transition out of the workforce.

While most young women did not require reasonable accommodations to continue to perform the responsibilities of their job, the majority reported that their employer would make such accommodations if needed. If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer and feel that you may benefit from reasonable accommodations from your employer at this time, speak with your healthcare team. You may feel hesitant to start this conversation due to fear of possible negative implications for your career or financial health. Your healthcare providers can help you prepare for the conversation. Visit the Job Accommodation Network or Triage Cancer for more information regarding guidance on workplace accommodation and employment issues. 


Rosenberg, S.M., Vaz-Luis, I., Gong, J. et al. Employment trends in young women following a breast cancer diagnosis. Breast Cancer Research and Treatment. 2019; 177(1): 207.

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