Returning to work after breast cancer: A tale of two stories


One in seven women are diagnosed with breast cancer in Australia in their lifetime and with eight in 10 cases occurring in women over the age of 50 this is a disease that has touched many members of the WOB community - from staff members to board directors. 


As we mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month this October, WOB shines a spotlight on the personal stories of breast cancer survivors and how their workplace impacted their experience. And with boards and leaders setting the supportive culture in organisations, we ask what they do to improve support for those returning to work following breast cancer? 

Angela’s story: ‘Work became a sure friend at an uncertain time’

WOB Business and Events Manager, Angela Bowen, has worked full-time since she was 17, apart from a few years off when she had her children 30 years ago.

“Working at WOB is fun, busy and innovative and I enjoy working with my colleagues in an environment that assists women with their career goals,” said Angela.

Like so many women, Angela’s world changed forever when diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in 2017 after her  first routine mammogram at age 50. 

“I was in total shock – I have no family history of breast cancer and no-one expects it to happen to them. I needed immediate treatment after scans revealed tumours in both breasts.”

Angela Bowen (second from left) celebrates her last round of chemotherapy with colleagues (l-r) Michelle Benson, Victoria Featherby and Claire Braund in the WOB office.

Angela’s experience when she told her employer about her cancer was a positive one.

“As soon as I told WOB’s Executive Director Claire she was sympathetic, practical and as supportive as she could have possibly been. She told me that I had a job for as long as I wanted and could work whatever days and hours I wished.”

Over 12 months, Angela had aggressive chemotherapy treatment and four surgeries, and continued to work throughout the year.

“Work kept me motivated and life somewhat ‘normal’ which is what I needed. I organised and attended events and the Next Gen program held in Sydney during chemo. Wearing a wig, participants were not aware of my breast cancer until I told them. The small WOB team was a great support.

“Knowing that I could work when I was able was a key contributor to my recovery and return to a ‘normal’ life. My work became a sure friend at an uncertain time”

Five years on, Angela’s cancer is in remission and she says her priorities have shifted slightly. “I still love to work but I appreciate time with loved ones more and I focus on my health and well-being. Life is what you make of it, enjoy it! Don’t let it pass you by. Having cancer changes you forever, but it can be a positive change.

“I feel very fortunate that I had the support of my employer, my family and the excellent doctors on my team. Don’t skip your important health checks - early detection is key.”

Rachelle’s story: ‘Everything an employer should not do’

Rachelle Panitz founded So Brave - Australia’s only young women breast cancer charity after her own experience. 

Brisbane WOB member Rachelle Panitz was in her third trimester of pregnancy when she noticed an unusual lump in her right breast. In early 2014, at age 32, with her newborn son just six weeks old and her daughter just turned three, Rachelle was diagnosed with triple positive stage 2 breast cancer.

“I had just started maternity leave. To be blunt, it was a terrible experience, and everything an employer should not do,” said Rachelle.

“I experienced a severe lack of support and assistance during that period, with expectations from my employer ranging from a requirement to 'check in' weekly to confirm I was still receiving treatment for breast cancer during chemotherapy and rejecting specialists' letters to support the fact I was going through long-term treatment for this disease. The severe lack of support is one of the reasons I left that profession.”

“Conversely, my husband's employer and team went out of their way to ensure he was supported - providing him with paternity leave to support me at home with our baby and young daughter, and gave incredible flexibility so he could continue in that role when I was better able to look after myself and the children.”

In 2015, recognising the battle many young women face when confronted with breast cancer Rachelle founded So Brave - Australia’s only young women breast cancer charity. So Brave recently hosted a webinar with Dr Senia Kalfa from Macquarie University who talked about her work addressing the issues of returning to work following a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Five years later, Rachelle was dealt another blow when her cancer returned. “It's a very different space working for yourself and then for an organisation you've founded specifically for the disease you have. It's certainly trickier navigating that line between passion for the work and my own diagnosis and ongoing treatment.

“I found that there was no blueprint for how I, and our Board could navigate that time. Now having the benefit of hindsight, I would suggest every organisation needs to have a plan for how to manage staff who need time off to have treatment or to care for someone going through treatment.”

She said every woman’s experience of breast cancer is different. “ I was diagnosed when my son was not yet six-weeks old so at that time work wasn’t my priority. But work often provides women with a 'third place' to feel normal and productive at. It provides a small sense of control over your life, in a time where so much has been taken out of your hands.”

How can employers help?

Returning to work can play an important role in recovery for breast cancer survivors – but workplace flexibility is key, according to research from Macquarie Business School.

Dr Senia Kalfa from Macquarie University recently shared her work addressing the issues of returning to work following a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment at a panel discussion hosted by So Brave. Dr Kalfa’s study found employees with cancer prefer greater flexibility and more tailored workplace adaptations like part-time or remote work, rather than a rigid set of entitlements.

“More than 20,600 people will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year in Australia and employers can play an important role in supporting women going through this difficult time,” said WOB Member and CEO of Breast Cancer Trials Australia, Adjunct Professor Soozy Smith, PhD FAICD.

She said breast cancer can affect people physically, emotionally and financially, and there are a number of ways that organisations can help and support an employee:

  • Communication is key – listening and understanding your employee’s situation is vital and having clear lines of communication is essential for both the employer and the employee.
  • Employee needs and developing a plan together – every person’s experience of breast cancer is unique and it’s important to find out what your employee’s needs are and together, work out a plan that works for both parties that includes for example a phased return to work.
  • Privacy – everyone has the right to privacy and your employee will provide guidance on whether they want their colleagues to know about their diagnosis and if so, how and when they would like others to be told.
  • Be flexible – you may need to make adjustments in the workplace so that your employee can continue to contribute, such as flexible hours or working from home.
  • Rights and legal considerations – it’s important that the organisation and the employee knows their rights and responsibilities, such as protection against discrimination, and policies and guidelines on sick leave and financial support.

'Looking out for each other'

WOB Member Elisabet Wreme is Chair of BreastScreen Victoria agrees that there are many things an organisation can do in supporting women through breast cancer.

“Sometimes small things like taking a genuine interest while at the same time giving the person space and ability to “hide” on a day that they are not feeling the best can make a real difference.”

Elisabet said overall she thinks employers have become much better at supporting their staff: “One of the good side effects of COVID. We have become better at looking out for each other, including mental health and flexible working makes it easier to get the time to go and do a screen.”

You could also organise a free education session at your workplace with an organisation, such as BreastScreen Victoria, or arrange a staff group booking. Alternatively, use your networks to organise a group screening.

“We are all in leadership positions, let’s use it to spread the message! I arranged an information session at my work about breast cancer and breast screening. It led to new people screening for the first time which was fantastic.

Early diagnosis ‘key’

All the women WOB spoke to for this story shared the same message: Be vigilant to check your breasts and also have regular mammograms, and if you notice any changes in your breast talk to your doctor about any concerns you have.

How to check your breasts

  • Check for any change in size and shape of your breasts 
  • Look for changes to your nipples including any discharge 
  • Be on the lookout for changes to the skin of your breasts – check for redness,
  • lumpiness and dimpling 
  • Keep an eye out for unusual pains that don’t go away

“After a month of pink everywhere, it's important to remember the stark fact: Every day 9 women in Australia die from breast cancer, and until we have better, more effective treatments, early intervention, and early diagnosis still remains our best weapon in the fight against this disease,” said Rachelle.

Important links

Breast screening organisations in your state:

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