Shift workers face increased risk of breast cancer

I was stunned last week to learn that shift workers who work through the night face an increased risk of breast cancer. This includes our emergency services, nurses and care workers, as well as call centre and airline staff.

The revelation came from Prof Gordon Wishart, an expert on cancer in the workplace and a consultant breast and endocrine surgeon. He says that the British Journal of Cancer recently published a report on occupational health cancer risks following a very robust piece of work conducted by well-respected researchers in the UK. Their study showed that shift work is, in effect, a carcinogen, with evidence that one in 20 breast cancers are now caused by shift work carried out at night.

The reason is that being exposed to light during the night when the body isn’t used to it upsets the body’s biological rhythms, and that causes a 51% increase in breast cancer.

Prof Wishart is also Medical Director for HealthScreen UK, a Cambridge company which offers the most advanced cancer screening in the workplace. He says that although the results of breast cancer treatment have improved over the years, it is vital to raise awareness about cancer risks and symptoms in the workplace, and that employers should be aware of these potential risks.

“If you were looking at it from a medico legal point of view, if someone was employed 20 years ago when this data was not known, then I don’t think there’s an issue. But I think the problem will arise now if you took someone on and in a few years they get breast cancer, you would then go back and say, ‘well the data was published at that time, you knew there was an increased risk, how did you discuss that risk with your employee?'”

He added that while the mortality rate for most cancers had come down significantly, and current cancer treatment is very good in the UK,  early detection was vital, and the positive outcomes not only benefited the patient, but also their employer and the economy.

“The average size of a lump that turns out to be breast cancer now has actually reduced over the last ten years due to all the campaigns on breast awareness. From an employer’s point of view, that usually means less treatment, considerably less time off work and getting somebody back to do the job they were doing much more quickly.”

Prof Wishart was addressing corporate delegates about cancer in the workplace during the launch of two new advanced diagnostic tools available in the workplace to improve early diagnosis of prostate and lung cancer, two of the most common cancers.

Prof David Neal, an eminent professor of surgical oncology at the University of Cambridge and Clinical Director for ProstateHealth UK, launched ProstateCheck, which uses a cancer specific biomarker known as hK2 available for the first time in the UK and exclusively licensed to ProstateHealth UK. By using the latest biomarker, combined with measuring the man’s PSA level, the method most commonly used, studies have shown that this advanced detection reduces the need for unnecessary biopsies by up to 50%.

Francis Wells, an internationally renowned consultant cardiothoracic surgeon at Papworth Hospital and clinical director for LungHealth UK, said their latest blood test for lung cancer screening was four times more likely to correctly identify lung cancer than low dose CT scans which are currently used. He described lung cancer as the “pariah” of all cancers, with little public sympathy as most cases are caused by smoking and regarded as self-inflicted, though it is the biggest cancer killer in the world, with increasing numbers of young women in the UK taking up smoking to keep their weight down, have something to fiddle with in their fingers, and to look “cool” amongst their peers.

Men are notoriously reticent about going to their doctor for health checks and the symptoms for  both prostate and lung cancer can go unnoticed, making it even more crucial for early cancer detection tests like this to be available in the workplace; there is no national screening programme for prostate or lung cancer.

The government is also encouraging employers to raise cancer awareness in the workplace as part of its “improving outcomes” for cancer strategy. This is much needed as the Health and Safety Executive estimate there are 13,500 new cases of work related cancer each year, and the TUC estimates over 15,000 deaths. By comparison, there are just 250 deaths a year as a result of an immediate injury at work.

There is clear evidence that cancer detection in the workplace pays dividends. Hewlett Packard recently took part in a prostate cancer awareness campaign with ProstateHealth UK which resulted in 12 new cancers being detected.

The chances are that these cancers would have gone undetected if the men had not been tested for it at work.



  1. Shiftwork feels awful but I’ve been doing it for so many years now that it’s normal. Except for nights and I have a four night stint starting at the end of next week. I’m dreading it. Fortunately nights only comes around one in twelve weeks for us.

    It is definitely unhealthy and it does something to your core. I imagine new mothers know the feeling well.

    The other shifts can be physically disruptive too and it takes until the second week of the two week summer holiday to realign body rhythms to feel part of the human race again !

    I just take it as an occupational hazard. My grandfathers had to go to war and suffer long hours and dust inhalation – my own conditions are very good by comparison.

    At work I am known as ‘Schizo’ on account of the fact that I’m one of the most pleasant and joccular of colleagues at normal times of day but a bit grouchy when booking on at 3 or 4am in the morning.

    I counter that the true nutters at our depot are the ones bantering and cracking jokes at FOUR O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING !

    I don’t know how they do it. It’s as much as I can muster to get the kettle on and make a pot of tea without spilling it everywhere at that time of day.

    • I’d say the worst shifts are long ones that start at around 2 or 3am. This is known to be the lowest ebb of the circadian rhythm and is when most in-bed deaths occur. When the alarm goes off at 2am one can fully understand why.

      These are worse than nights in fact, and impossible to work out a proper sleeping strategy for. They are neither nights nor earlies and it is quite disorientating to be driving the car home in the afternoon having been up for so much of the night. I often stay at work and have an hour’s kip so that I am safe to drive myself home.

      I became a union health and safety because of this very issue and the tendancy of our company to put crews on these shifts all the time. I campaigned for (and won) better shift patterns for us.

      Some of my grouchier postings have been done when sleep deprived but being too knackered to go to sleep.

      • union rep

        (third para)

      • Good for you Kevin, perhaps you can show your bosses this blog post to see if they will introduce health checks for staff who work shifts, or at least make them aware that they should take this matter seriously.

    • Poor you Kevin. Studies have shown that women who work nights on shift work rotas face an increased risk of breast cancer, but as far as I am aware, there has not been a similar study for how men’s health is affected.

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