Irish unions launch breast cancer awareness drive

Explore similar themes

Every year, 2,600 women in Ireland are diagnosed with breast cancer; 660 of them will not survive.

To address the challenges, not caused only by the disease but also its treatment and the impact it has on workers, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) has published a new booklet.

Launched to coincide with the beginning of Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, the Policies to assist workers with breast cancer and other illnesses guidebook aims to assist diagnosed workers with their treatment, recovery and return to work.

The guide was drafted by the ICTU’s Legal and Legislative Officer Esther Lynch, who said the initial idea for the project came from a conversation with a counsellor nurse while volunteering at a local hospice.

“She told me it would be very helpful if she had a guide to that could tell people what to do when they had to tell their employer [about their diagnosis]. So the guide came out of that conversation, which was, ‘if I have breast cancer and I went to speak to my union official, would my union official know what to say to me?’”

The guide has so far been well-received.

“I think is very sensitively written. It is exactly as I would have written it myself,” said Bernice Glavin, a breast cancer survivor.

Glavin, a staff nurse at Cork University Hospital, said she was diagnosed in 2005, one week after completing the Dublin City marathon.

“I was absolutely devastated,” she said. “I had nursed many patients with cancer over the years and had seen the effects the illness had on their families.

“If [this booklet] had been there at that stage it would have helped a lot. That support wasn’t available then, and I didn’t really know where to start or where to find information.”

Michelle Monahan, a radiographer at Connolly Hospital in Dublin and member of the Services, Industrial Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU), said her union represents 45,000 healthcare workers, and so every cancer patient will undoubtedly encounter members of the union. As a result, this guide will be useful for both parties.

“The fear factor of women coming in for mammography is palpable in the room. It may be just a routine screening because you got a letter, but it’s an innate fear,” Monahan said.

“That’s why we need this policy [document]. To ensure that it’s okay to go for that mammogram. It’s okay to ask for time off to go for that mammogram.”

Breast cancer is the most common cancer found in women, with some 508, 000 women dying from the disease globally every year.

Launching the booklet, Labour party leader and Tánaiste (Irish deputy prime minister) Joan Burton welcomed the booklet as a “positive step” and expressed the hope it would be distributed through Intreo, the government’s social protection and employment offices.

This would allow unions and employers to cooperate on a clear workplace policy that supports breast cancer survivors while acknowledging that when people recover, they will, at a certain point, want to return to work, and have a pathway through which they can do so.

Burton added that it was also important that men were aware of screening programmes for prostate cancer.

“Women are prepared to talk about it much more,” Burton said.

“Men very often keep it as a private thing, so it is important that the knowledge around screening is made available, and that people who are affected feel confident that they can get information.”

Liam Doran, general secretary of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Association (INMO) told Equal Times: “Obviously this launch is very important from a workers point of view. I think we all know that the female population in the workforce is increasing all the time, and therefore we need to have very positive and proactive policies.”

Doran said that in 2013 his union organised free screening for its members, which became known as the Pink Power initiative. As a result, three early detections were made.

“We all face risks, social risks, which keep changing in our lives. And they are risks that we cannot deal with individually, we can only deal with them collectively,” ICTU general secretary David Begg said. “We have to be concerned about the whole quality of life.”