It was an appallingly inappropriate remark, lacking understanding of and consideration for cancer patients.
“They don’t have to work,” Hideo Onishi, a House of Representatives member of the Liberal Democratic Party, said at an LDP divisional meeting regarding cancer patients being tormented by passive smoking in the workplace.
Onishi later apologized and tried to explain his intention was to say “cancer patients don’t have to force themselves to work in places where smoking is allowed.” But he did not retract his words. Organizations supporting patients have rightly berated Onishi for comments they say made them feel angry and sad.
Each year, about 1 million people in Japan are diagnosed with cancer. One-third of them are ages 20 to 64 — the working-age generation.
Advances in medical treatment have enabled the survival rate five years after being diagnosed with cancer to improve to more than 60 percent. Although a growing number of cancer patients have the desire and ability to work, conditions concerning their employment remain severe.
One in 3 people working at a company when they are diagnosed with cancer lose their job, either by voluntary resignation or being dismissed. The reasons given by many of these people are, “I will inconvenience my workplace,” or, “I’m not confident I can work while getting treatment.” Some cancer patients do not tell their workplace about their health problems out of fear of being demoted or forced to resign.
In an opinion poll conducted by the Cabinet Office, more than 60 percent of respondents said it is difficult to hold down a job while undergoing cancer treatment. With re-employment difficult after leaving a job, cancer patients have limited choices when it comes to workplaces.
For patients of the working-age generation, a job can provide some meaning to their life and encourage them with their treatment. In some cases these patients have no option but to work to pay for the ongoing and expensive treatment costs.
Firms must be flexible
It is possible for a person diagnosed with cancer to keep working, provided suitable support measures are in place. The government should speed up efforts to spread and raise awareness about correct knowledge and create an environment in which cancer patients can work with peace of mind.
The revised Basic Plan to Promote Cancer Control Programs that started from fiscal 2012 touted employment support for cancer patients as a priority policy.
The revised Cancer Control Law that came into force in December 2016 obligates companies to make efforts to consider the continued employment of cancer patients. Enabling people to work while undergoing treatment also is a pillar of the government’s action plan for work style reform.
The government has stationed expert consultants at Hello Work job placement centers and pushed employment support through close coordination with medical institutions. We hope these efforts will be expanded further.
Companies will need to introduce flexible working arrangements and holidays so cancer patients can work while receiving treatment, and create support systems that include the patient’s usual doctor and others.
It also is important to prevent passive smoking in the workplace. Working while being exposed to cigarette smoke that can cause health problems is a huge cause of anxiety for cancer patients.
But even if a workplace’s measures to prevent secondhand smoke are insufficient, a worker cannot easily change jobs. In some cases work-related matters require employees to go to drinking and eating establishments where smoking is permitted. We want to see policy debates that give consideration to the cancer patients’ position on this issue.