Cancer survivors suffer workplace discrimination, report says


By Saskia Edwards. Edited for online by Rachel Riga.

A nationwide survey of 550 cancer survivors has found a quarter of those diagnosed experienced discrimination in the workplace.

The report from the McCabe Centre for Law shows cancer survivors feel they miss out on career opportunities, that their colleagues’ sympathy decreases quickly and their jobs aren’t advanced due to the possibility of relapse.

Co-author of the report, Sondra Davoren, says while there are supportive employers, discrimination still exists.

“People who went back to work after a cancer diagnosis or after cancer treatment actually had really sympathetic employers,” she said.

“But we still found that some people were concerned about how their employers would react to them coming back to work, whether they’d be able to modify their job or whether they’d be able to return to work in a full capacity.”

The report revealed 72 per cent of cancer survivors feel workplace discrimination towards them is a problem.

Pressure to resign after diagnosis

Rachel, a cancer survivor, spoke anonymously to QUT News about her treatment at a Brisbane workplace after her diagnosis.

“Mentally it’s a horrible feeling when someone has written you off as dead before you’ve even gone through the treatment,” she said.

After working for a health company for 15 years, Rachel felt she was encouraged to quit after her cancer diagnosis.

“Basically they tried to get me to resign,” she said.

“It made me feel very low.”

Cancer Council Queensland spokesperson Katie Clift says it is a huge stress on survivors.

“Discrimination that some cancer patients may be experiencing is from financial services in the workplace,” she said.

“You can imagine it’s a very significant mental, psychological and emotional strain.”

Call for change to Discrimination Act

Professor of Law Reform at Australian National University Simon Rice says this type of behaviour goes against Discrimination Act.

“When there’s a connection between somebody being treated unfavourably and an illness or disability, a past illness or even the risk of a future illness, which a cancer survivor may have, then they have a right to claim disability discrimination,” he said.

Professor Rice says it is a worldwide problem.

“To be denied your right to equal treatment is a breach of your human rights,” he said.

Ms Davoren says she wants to make the discrimination law more specific to protect cancer survivors.

“We need to look at the system in which these laws are created and how we can make broad changes to that system and to the legal framework that would actually assist all cancer patients.” she said.

The report also found many cancer sufferers did not come forward with concerns.

Survivors ‘too emotionally drained’ to complain

Ms Davoren says after people battle cancer they do not have the energy to go through the complaint process.

“Having gone through all the stress and distress of a cancer experience, to then have to battle against laws and policies, it might be adversely affecting them,” she said.

“It’s a really hard ask and that is what we suspect actually leads to low complaints.”

Rachel says she felt too emotionally drained to stand up for herself.

“I’m a strong person but mentally not feeling the same as you normally would do to fight back because you’ve got some much emotional stuff going on at the same time,” she said.

She says ultimately there need to be more education.

“I think everyone needs re-education in the way that cancer is dealt with nowadays,” she said.


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