Top tips for supporting female employees after breast cancer

By Ella Cooper, Head of Vitality Care

Sep 10, 2018

As more women survive breast cancer and look to return to some semblance of normality at home and work, it’s worth taking a look at whether you’re doing enough to provide the physical and psychological support they need.

There’s a misconception amongst those diagnosed with cancer of all types, not just breast cancer, that physical activity is a big “no-no” both pre and post treatment. 

This is something that has to change considering that physical activity can greatly assist recovery, both physically and psychologically.

And what better hook to help get this message across than Macmillan’s Biggest Coffee Morning, which takes place on 29th September this year.

Advice & reassurance

Research by Macmillan Cancer Support1 found that 43% of people living with cancer don’t receive any support or advice on physical activity from a healthcare professional. The potential benefits of exercise after cancer treatment are well documented in terms of improving strength, range of motion and cardio fitness, reducing depression, anxiety and side effects such as nausea, fatigue and pain.

The trouble is, if you’re diagnosed with cancer the natural impulse is to just take it easy. People need advice: they need to hear that it’s OK - nay desirable - to keep moving. This doesn’t have to be a rigorous exercise regime. It can be as simple as walking the dog, hanging out the laundry: everyday things that can get left behind when worry takes hold.

Exercise for the mind & body

Clare Lait, Specialist Cancer Physiotherapist provides services for the NHS, funded by Macmillan, and also works with Vitality’s customers after cancer. “People are surviving longer but they’re not necessarily living well,” says Lait. “Patients are putting on weight due to the treatment and the perceived inability to exercise. They tend to lose muscle strength, commonly report fatigue and experience problems with balance due to the side effects of chemotherapy.

“We work with dieticians and healthy lifestyle coaches to give people the skills and knowledge they need to self-manage all of these aspects.”

Physical activity is also used to help address the emotional aspect.

Lait adds: “Around 80% of people we see report pain and fatigue following cancer treatment. This brings with it psychological problems, in terms of the lack of motivation to keep moving and also anxiety that the cancer might be back. We assess to see if activity can be used to address both the physical and psychological aspects or whether a referral back to the oncologist might be required.”

A problem aired is a problem shared

Pyschological issues are an inevitable by-product of cancer.

The mental health charity Mind reports that approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year2. This increases to around 1 in 3 (38%)1 when cancer features.

On a normal day, getting help for a mental health problem can be problematic, largely due to the lingering stigma associated. Throw cancer into the mix and the inevitable feelings of vulnerability and disempowerment that it brings, it’s perhaps unsurprising to hear that people don’t know where to turn. And even if they did, they probably wouldn’t ask.

For this reason, proactive and confidential access to support from you – the employer – could go a long way.

This should be targeted towards giving people the tools and confidence they need to self-manage residual symptoms following treatment. In the case of breast cancer, these range from pain and fatigue (as with all cancers) but also joint aches and menopausal symptoms due to hormone imbalances, restriction of shoulder movement and sometimes lymphedema.

 3 top tips to staying physically & psychologically fit 

  • Your employees need to hear from a trusted healthcare professional that it’s safe to become and stay active, at a level that’s right for them.
  • Make sure messages are delivered sensitively, with useful examples and information:
  • Ensure full use of your existing resources to help provide access to advice and support from professionals – from Employee Assistance Programmes and Virtual GP services to added value services via your Health Insurance or Group Income Protection providers.
  • Macmillan advises motivating people to keep active with friends, family and pets.
  • The charity also advises using terminology focused on ‘moving more’ and ‘reducing sedentary time’ as opposed to ‘increase physical activity’ which could be off-putting to some. 

Finally, group get-togethers are proven to be very effective for cancer survivors. “Bringing people together helps decrease isolation and increase connectivity,” says Lait. “It’s proven to improve the quality of health outcomes through the increased use of healthcare resources. We’re definitely seeing improvements in the ability to self-manage health.” 

For this reason, Vitality launched an initiative with Champneys, the health spa, to help bring together our breast cancer survivors. All those who’ve been given the ‘all clear’ are offered this two-day stay. It includes group sessions with experts in mindfulness, physiotherapy and nutrition, plus one to ones, pilates and use of the spa facilities. But most of all it allows for shared experiences with others who can truly relate. 



1  What motivates people with cancer to get active? Macmillan Cancer Support [accessed August 2018]

Mental health facts & statistics, Mind [accessed August 2018]



We’re the first insurance company to reward people for healthy living. We aim to be the best at what we do, offering comprehensive and award-winning Health and Life cover and positively different investments to our members. We believe in the idea of ‘shared value’: we help you take a more active role in managing your own wellness, which can encourage you to develop healthy long-term habits that are good for you, good for us and good for society.

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