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12.05.2016 | Ausgabe 6/2016

Journal of Cancer Survivorship 6/2016

The “Big C”—stigma, cancer, and workplace discrimination

Journal of Cancer Survivorship > Ausgabe 6/2016
Mary Stergiou-Kita, Cheryl Pritlove, Bonnie Kirsh



Stigma and workplace discrimination have been identified as prominent challenges to employment following cancer. However, there has been limited examination of how stigma develops in work contexts and how it influences cancer survivors’ return to work process and their disclosure decisions.


In the broader study from which this paper emerges, we used an exploratory qualitative design to examine the return to work process (including workplace supports and accommodations) of cancer survivors. We conducted 40 semi-structured interviews with (i) cancer survivors (n = 16), (ii) health care/vocational service providers (n = 16), and (iii) employer representatives (n = 8). We used thematic analysis methods to analyze the data. In this paper, we present data related specifically to workplace stigma, discrimination, and disclosure.


Contrasting perspectives were identified among our stakeholder groups regarding the existence and impact of stigma in the workplace. While most provider and employer representatives believed survivors were not likely to be stigmatized, cancer survivors themselves perceived cancer as a highly stigmatized illness in the workplace. Two inter-related elements were implicated in the development of workplace stigma following cancer: (1) ongoing misconceptions and fears associating cancer with death and (2) misperceptions regarding impacts on the workplace, including survivors’ work abilities, productivity, reliability, the costs associated with their continued employment (e.g., workplace accommodations), and future impacts on the workplace related to cancer re-occurrence. Discriminatory behaviors, such as hiring discrimination, bullying, harassment, refusal of workplace accommodations, and limited career advancement opportunities, were also discussed. A supportive workplace, a desire to be open with co-workers, and a need to request supports and manage expectations were reasons provided for disclosure. Conversely, an unsupportive workplace, fear of discrimination, and a minimal need for assistance were reasons provided for not disclosing their cancer.


Stigma and workplace discrimination are significant concerns for cancer survivors. Anti-stigma programs should target ongoing myths regarding cancer and survivors’ right to work, work abilities and productivity, and incorporate survivors’ voices to enhance understanding. Survivors, health care providers, vocational service providers, and employers should become familiar with anti-discrimination legislation and recognize stigma and discriminatory behaviors when they occur.

Implications for Cancer Survivors

Survivors require guidance to decide whether (or not) to disclose their cancer, how to respond to discriminatory behaviors, and how to best state their needs for workplace accommodations.

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