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More than half of women take home less pay after a cancer diagnosis. We must do more to close the cancer gender pay gap


3 min read Partner content

Government, employers and the NHS – need to work together to ensure patients live well with and beyond cancer, says Dr Olivia Ashman, Oncology Medical Director, Pfizer UK. 

Unfortunately, cancer is likely to touch us all. We might be a patient ourselves, or we may be the partner, family member or friend of someone who receives this potentially life-changing diagnosis. It can impact all aspects of life: as the effect of cancer ripples across society as family members take time off work, friends rally together to provide support and organisations adjust to supporting an employee in adjusting to life with cancer.

Pfizer commissioned Demos to undertake research to quantify this ‘ripple effect’.  The report, Cancer Costs, explores the social and economic impact of a cancer diagnosis on an individual, family, community and the UK as a whole. The Cancer Costs report was based on original interviews with cancer patients, a quantitative survey (with over 200 participants) and a literature review. It calculated the total economic cost of cancer to the economy, in terms of lost wages and benefits to be at least £1.4 billion a year, rising to £7.6 billion a year if we take into account mortality.1

But one of the most significant findings was the socioeconomic impact of cancer was different between women and men. Our research found that more than half of women (55 per cent) changed their working patterns following diagnosis, compared to only 40 per cent of men. 1 These changes ranged from taking unpaid leave, reducing their hours and giving up work altogether.1

Furthermore, 55 per cent of women also take home less than they earned before their diagnosis, compared to 51 per cent of men.1 This in part can be explained by the changes to working patterns, but not entirely. Even in the group that made no changes to work, women were more likely to see a fall in income.1

But the impact of changes in working patterns goes beyond the purely economic. Many participants described the lack of retraining opportunities and aftercare as having a knock-on effect on their social life and mental health. As one cancer survivor from the report reflected, “it is not the cancer that’s life changing so much as the impact of the system. Losing my career has affected my quality of life and self-respect hugely – as well as my income.”1 We need further research to understand why women in work are disproportionately impacted by cancer and work together as a priority to address this.

Pfizer supports Demos’ recommendation that the Government pilots a new cancer specific training programme, as part of the new National Retraining Partnership. Considering the inequality in impact of cancer1, this pilot should pay particular attention to retraining women living with and beyond cancer.1 Crucially, this may not only improve quality of life for those who wish to return to work after recovering from cancer, but could also help to reduce the gender pay gap amongst the growing part of our population who are affected by cancer.

Over the past 20 years, cancer survival rates in the UK have continued to improve, partly as a result of major health care reforms and technological advances.[1] With more people living beyond a cancer diagnosis, it is no longer acceptable to view cancer policy solely as a healthcare issue.

The Cancer Costs report shows we all - Government, employers and the NHS – need to work together to ensure patients live well with and beyond cancer. Reducing its ‘ripple effect’ will have benefits for us all.

[1] M. Arnold et. al., ‘Progress in cancer survival, mortality, and incidence in seven high-income countries 1995-2004 (ICBP SURVMARK-2): a population-based study’, The Lancet Oncology, September 2019. Available from: [Accessed January 2020]


PP-ONC-GBR-1396, March 2020

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