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BMC Public Health. 2012 Jul 23;12:538. doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-12-538.

Survived but feeling vulnerable and insecure: a qualitative study of the mental preparation for RTW after breast cancer treatment.

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Department of Occupational, Environmental and Insurance Medicine, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Kapucijnenvoer 35/5, B-3000, Leuven, Belgium.



Improvements in treatment have resulted in an increasing number of cancer survivors potentially being able to return to work after medical treatment. In this paper we focus on the considerations regarding return to work (RTW) of breast cancer absentees in the Belgian context and how these considerations are related to reactions from their social environment.


A qualitative study was performed to understand the RTW considerations of Belgian breast cancer absentees who had undergone breast cancer surgery in 2006. Twenty-two participants (mean age 46) were included and interviewed between May 2008 and August 2009 in their personal environment. An in-depth analysis (Grounded Theory) took place using the Qualitative Analysis Guide of Leuven (Quagol).


Before the actual RTW, breast cancer employees try to build an image of the future resumption of work based on medical grounds and their knowledge of the workplace. Four matters are considered prior to RTW: (i) women want to leave the sick role and wish to keep their job; (ii) they consider whether working is worth the effort; (iii) they reflect on their capability; and (iv) they have doubts about being accepted in the workplace after returning. These inner thoughts are both product and input for the interaction with the social environment. The whole process is coloured by uncertainty and vulnerability.


Our study demonstrated that mental preparation for RTW is not a linear process of improvement. It shows a detailed picture of four types of considerations made by breast cancer survivors before they actually resume work. Vulnerability appears to be an overarching theme during mental preparation. As the social environment plays an important role, people from that environment must become more aware of their influence on decreasing or increasing a woman's vulnerability while preparing for RTW.

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