In the UK, and globally, the taboo surrounding conversations about men’s health – both physical and mental – is slowly being addressed. However, while we may be better as a society at encouraging conversation and openness, as well as encouraging people to take the first step towards getting screened, we need to be more aware of the wider impact cancer diagnoses can have both on the life of the patient and those surrounding them.
In the UK alone, there are around 193,000 new cancer cases diagnosed among men every year, around 11,000 more than women, with the number of men being diagnosed with cancer actually rising. Additionally, when we widen the scope to the working population, over 100,000 people of working age are diagnosed with cancer in the UK a year.
The cancer screening and treatment backlog because of COVID is affecting over 2 million people in the UK. As the NHS has invested in resources to reduce backlogs, it’s important to get back to our screening routine as individuals.
With billions of pounds being invested into research, cures, diagnostic tools and supporting people, what does this actually mean for men who are living with it on a daily basis and as employers, what can we do to support both the individual and the wider team as they go through what is undoubtably a physical and emotional journey.
The Impact on Daily Life
As 1 in 2 people will develop some form of cancer during their lifetime, it is likely most people will, at some point, be affected by a cancer diagnoses whether it is themselves or others, including family, close friends or colleagues. But cancer itself is a broad term and shockingly there are actually more than 200 types we can currently diagnose.
The most common cancer diagnosis for men is prostate cancer, which sees over 52,000 diagnoses given per year in the UK. Testicular cancer is another common diagnosis, especially in younger males, peaking within the 30-34 age group and then declining rapidly. Bowel cancer, which has seen an incredible awareness rise in recent years, affects 1 in 15 people. This is just a small snapshot of the results given to men up and down the country every day.
For many going through the process of a cancer diagnosis and awaiting test results, it can be an incredibly anxious time, both for themselves and family and friends. Whether it is a result for themselves or someone they know, emotions can be overwhelming as many feel they have no control over the situation. With mental health struggles such as anxiety and worry still stigmatised, sometimes more profoundly for men, it is understandable how the waiting game can have a huge impact on day-to-day life. In fact, around one-third of patient diagnosed with cancer will be found to have a mental health disorder.
For those who do receive a cancer diagnosis, it is likely there will be a long recovery ahead. The physical and emotional toll of cancer treatment can lead to fatigue, pain, and reduced energy levels. When faced with the physical tolls battling cancer can take, it can make it challenging to maintain a ‘normal’ life, especially when it comes to usual work routines, for those both in physically demanding jobs as well as office-based roles. The mental and emotional stress of a cancer diagnosis can also have a profound effect on concentration and therefore productivity levels. It is crucial for employers to understand all challenges and proactively amend workplace practices to accommodate the unique needs of men who have been diagnosed with cancer.
What can employers do?
There is no single right way to support someone through a cancer journey. Every person’s personal experience is unique, and it is usually a case of taking it step by step. For some, going to work can provide a sense of normality at a time when everything seems unusual and uncertain, whereas for others, it can prove too physically or mentally exhausting. The situation often sits somewhere in between.
To support employees, employers can create an open environment where open conversations are prioritised and encouraged. This will allow employers to better give people the tools needed so they can either remain at work throughout the process or return when they are ready.
For employers, this serves as an incredible means of fostering trust and loyalty among employees while ensuring the retention of valuable knowledge and expertise within the company. On the employee’s side, work can hold significant importance in shaping one’s identity, leading to enhanced self-respect, self-esteem, mental well-being, and social inclusion. Amidst the challenge of facing a disease that often takes away so much, preserving these aspects can greatly contribute to the recovery process.
The next step is to implement flexible policies for appointments, sick leave and working from home can be a good starting point for supporting employees facing a long-term illness. This way, employees can take the time off required to seek medical guidance and receive the help required. If possible, employers can also offer reduced hours or lighter duties to ease the pressure on employees.
If an employee does choose to speak about cancer, whether it is a diagnosis for themselves or someone close to them, it’s important to listen and talk through their specific reality. It is important employers don’t assume a one-size-fits-all all approach, actively personalising the approach to the situation and individual. This means highlighting the available benefits and policies, whether it’s mental health support providing guidance through a difficult time, employee assistance programmes, or wellbeing credits or programmes through which employees can consult in order to improve their daily habits and check in with themselves.
Experiencing a cancer diagnoses ourselves or supporting a family member or colleague living with cancer is common. Prevention is key, and so it is important to encourage screening through awareness and open discussion. Showing support is equally key, as some people (and managers) often do not know how to help pf bring up the subject. A positive conversation starts with promoting open discussion, staying informed and creating a safe space. When handled effectively, this can be very helpful to everyone concerned and can ensure employees receive the support required.
 Macmillan, Working Through Cancer
 Prostate Cancer.Org, https://prostatecanceruk.org/prostate-information-and-support/risk-and-symptoms/about-prostate-cancer#:~:text=More%20than%2044%2C000%20men%20are,after%20prostate%20cancer%20in%20England.
Dr Marc Robin
Dr. Marc Robin is the Medical Director at Dialogue where he works as a telemedicine physician, and leads a multidisciplinary team of physicians across Canada focused on patient-centered approach to virtual health care.