Narratives of women’s breast cancer experience and how this impacts on their working lives

Dowling, Dianne (2016) Narratives of women’s breast cancer experience and how this impacts on their working lives. Doctoral thesis, London Metropolitan University.


Over 55,000 new breast cancer cases are diagnosed each year and the figures are rising. Most studies show that women want to get back to ‘normal’ and describe how returning to work helps to achieve this. For some, there are wider health implications which may affect their mobility or return to work (RTW). Disabilities are sometimes hidden, for example fatigue and emotional stress may result in a loss of confidence and work ability. Few studies focus on how the structural relations of organizations impact women’s decisions to RTW after treatment. This study contributes to our knowledge and understanding of how employers view disability, how work place adjustments are made and the support that women are offered on their RTW.

This study explores the process of return or non-return to work after breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. It examines the relationship between the personal narratives of women with breast cancer and discourses around workplace discipline and practice. It records women’s attitudes towards work, their career aspirations and how support networks played a part in influencing their return or non-return to work. It illustrates how women’s embodied experiences are not only about immediate experiences located in a specific context i.e. the breast cancer diagnosis but also how the body intersects with culture: how it is marked by categories of gender, age, class, ethnicity, and (dis)ability and is subject to regulation and control.

Interviews were conducted with sixteen breast cancer respondents and HR directors from five major employers based in the South West of England. The cases in this research show that women’s safe return to work is limited due to employers’ lack of understanding of their working [dis]ability with few or no adjustments in place to accommodate their needs. Breast Cancer patients consider a RTW allows them to move on from their cancer diagnosis but struggle to overcome the barriers in the process of returning. Whilst some women struggled to retain their jobs, others changed career paths or retired early due to ill-health continuing long after diagnosis.

Dianne Dowling -DProf - full thesis.pdf - Published Version

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