Women, Cancer and Work

Cancer is not a single disease with a single type of treatment. There are more than 200 different types of cancer affecting different parts of the body. Cancers occur when new cells start growing out of control and develop into a lump or tumour. These tumours can be either benign or malignant. If it is benign the cells do not spread to other parts of the body, but if it is malignant the tumour can spread beyond the original area. Cancer is the name given to a malignant tumour. If the tumour is left untreated, it may spread into the surrounding tissues. Sometimes cells break away from the original cancer and spread to other organs in the body through the bloodstream or lymphatic system. When the cancer cells reach a new area they go on dividing and form a new tumour.

Occupational cancer

Cancers can develop for a wide range of reasons. These include exposure to radiation – both from radioactive materials and the sun – infection by certain viruses, a genetic defect, a weakened immune system, age, bad diet, and exposure to chemical carcinogens. Carcinogens damage cells and make them more likely to turn cancerous. There is a wide range of known carcinogens, including tobacco smoke, asbestos fibres, diesel exhaust, radiation, and a wide range of chemicals found in the workplace. Although some cancers seem to develop for no apparent reason, most are a result of exposure to a carcinogen, lifestyle issues, genetic defects, age or a combination of these. Giving a figure for what causes any kind of cancer can be very difficult as it is often not easy to ascertain the cause. For example, a link between a specific cancer and a chemical or dust may not be proven or skin cancer contracted by an outdoor worker may be caused by exposure to the sun at work or on holiday. Because men traditionally were more likely to working in engineering and construction more men get occupational cancer. The two exceptions are cervical cancer and breast cancer. Although men can get breast cancer, it is very rare. What is fairly certain, though, is that the gap will narrow between men and women as we increasingly have less job segregation between men and women. So it is essential that union safety reps work with their employer to ensure that appropriate measures are put in place at work to prevent occupational cancer.

Cancer Screening

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the UK. Nearly 41,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year and it affects one in nine women at some point in their life: 80% of cases occur after the menopause.

The NHS National Breast Screening Programme provides free screening for all women over the age of 50 and women between the ages of 50 and 70 are routinely invited for a free mammogram. With better screening and new treatments there has been a significant improvement in survival rates. Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women under 35 and it most likely to occur in women aged 25 to 65. The smear test identifies the early changes of cervical cancer and the NHS Cervical Screening Programme currently invites all women in Scotland aged 20 to 60 for a free smear check every three to five years. This will change in April 2016 to mirror the age range used in England, 25-64. By identifying these changes before cancer has become fully established, cervical screening saves approximately thousands of lives a year and the death rate has reduced dramatically in the past 30 years.

What can reps do?

Please click on the links below to find out what you can do to support women affected by cancer in the workplace

Women’s Health and Safety at Work Toolkit

Educate Agitate Organise Blog

Educate Agitate Organise: the STUC Blog

Educate Agitate Organise: the STUC blog


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