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John Picken

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Breast cancer – what can employers do to help?


John Picken, Director of the health and wellbeing consultancy Shandwell, reviews the latest research on breast cancer and the implications for employers.

It’s a startling statistic, but according to Cancer Research UK (CRUK) one woman in eight will get breast cancer.

The risk increases with age yet this is not a condition that just affects older women.

It is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women under 35. In fact, the risk for women between 30 and 39 is one in 215: for women between 40 and 49 the risk increases to one in 50. The current NHS Breast Screening programme starts at age 50 and is offered only every three years after that, up to age 70.

The CRUK research suggests that unhealthy lifestyle factors and having a family history of the disease increase a woman’s risk. Women having fewer children later in life also increases the risk. There are many, some unknown, variables at work here.

Whatever the cause, the emotional and financial costs are significant. There are very few of us who have not been affected by breast cancer either directly or indirectly.

Over recent years, employers have been concerned about the escalating costs of providing treatment for cancer, particularly through private medical insurance yet there has not been such a great focus on prevention or early detection leading to a better prognosis.

It’s great to see so many employers now looking at what they can do to help encourage their employees to lead healthier lifestyles and make wellbeing a business issue. Such initiatives will help reduce the breast cancer risk.

Some employers pay for private mammography for those not eligible for NHS screening or arrange it on a voluntary basis which again helps tackle the issue. But mammography can be expensive, uncomfortable and for younger women, inappropriate.

Nearly 90% of all breast cancers are self-diagnosed which means that one of the most effective methods of early detection is through self examination. The trouble is that many women don’t know when and how to do this, with some choosing not to do it at all.  

However, low cost BreastCheck services are available, delivered by specialist breast cancer nurses with years of experience in knowing what to look for.

Much health screening has traditionally been seen as expensive and only for those of a certain grade or benefit entitlement. What these services do is make it affordable for all employees, specifically targeting the most common cancer in women. They can cost as little as five pounds a month if arranged on a voluntary basis.

Employers have the opportunity to help women to help themselves when it comes to breast cancer. A little investment in greater breast health awareness would go a long way to reducing the emotional and financial costs involved.

John Picken is Director of the health and wellbeing consultancy Shandwell.


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