An increasing number of women survive breast cancer and a majority return to work. However, findings based on mean values may conceal individual processes that need to be better understood to discuss meaningful rehabilitation.
The purpose of this study is to describe the sick-leave pattern of a group of Swedish women with primary breast cancer but foremost to explore their ideas about what motivates and discourages their return to work.
Fifty-six women were repeatedly interviewed over a period of 18-24 months. Interview sections that clearly illustrated the women's experiences and ideas about work were categorized using the comparative similarities-differences technique.
The average length of sick leave was 410 days (range 0-942). Six months after the first day of sick leave, 29% worked at least their previous service grade. At 12 months, 55% and at 18 months 57% did so. Those treated with chemotherapy had in average more than twice as large sick leave as those who did not. Three categories emerged. 'Motives for not returning to work' consists of four subcategories: 'I'm still too fragile to return to work'; 'My workplace is a discouraging place'; 'I took an opportunity to pause' and 'I've lost the taste for work'. 'Motives for returning' consists of two sub-categories: 'Work generates and structures my everyday life' and 'I miss my workplace'. Finally, 'Transition in work approach' reflects a changed approach to work.
The meaning of work varies over time, but first and foremost work was regarded as an important part of the healing process as it restores the disruption of everyday life. Guidelines cannot be reduced to a linear relationship with biomedical variables but the individual context of everyday life must be considered.