How A Co-Worker's Breast Cancer Diagnosis Affects Colleagues

When a woman at work experiences breast cancer, does that make her colleagues more likely to get mammograms and be proactive about their own health?

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When you have a colleague who's diagnosed with breast cancer, it's a hard time for the patient but can also be a hard time for you. You worry about your colleague of course and you might also start to think about your own health - your own mortality. NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam joins us regularly on this program and is here now to tell us about a study that examines how a cancer diagnosis might affect other people in the office. Hi, Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what's the effect?

VEDANTAM: Well, the study was looking at breast cancer in particular, Steve. Obviously a very serious disease - nearly a quarter-million Americans diagnosed every year with breast cancer, nearly 40,000 women die each year from breast cancer. This study was trying to find out when one person in a workplace gets diagnosed with breast cancer, does it become more or less likely that her colleagues will be motivated now to screen for breast cancer?

The study comes from a couple of economists - Giulio Zanella and Ritesh Banerjee. They came by this unusual data set that involved 7,000 U.S. women all 50 and over. The data spanned three years - and let me just take a second to explain some interesting things about this data set - all of these women worked at one company. The data about the individual women was anonymous, but there was information on where each woman worked physically, what kind of healthcare she utilized, what kind of diagnosis she received.

Now, all of these women were covered by health insurance. It was a very good insurance plan. And the plan allowed for one free mammogram screening every year. And this company made a real push to help women get screened for breast cancer. So it would try and automatically schedule mammograms. It would try and remind women about the mammograms. The wait times to get screened were very small. So the barriers typically for women not to get screened didn't exist at this company.

INSKEEP: So the question then is, do the coworkers then take that information to decide to check up on their own health?

VEDANTAM: That's right, Steve. And the answer is not as obvious as you might think. Here's Ritesh Banerjee.

RITESH BANERJEE: When I was thinking about this, I thought, yeah, wouldn't one expect people to screen more because maybe you're scared or maybe you're (unintelligible). But I think psychologists and social scientists talk about this idea of information aversion - the idea that maybe you don't want to find out about some really bad news because of the way it makes you feel.

INSKEEP: Oh, so this might cut both ways. Information aversion is something you've reported on on this program.

VEDANTAM: That's right. It's the idea that information can sometimes be scary. And in those cases, people can sometimes avoid that kind of information. I did a story a couple of weeks ago that looked at college students who didn't want to find out that they had sexually transmitted diseases for example.

INSKEEP: In fact, they were willing to pay not to find out the results of a blood test they'd already taken which is pretty amazing. So now we have this situation with people in an office who've actually found out that a colleague has breast cancer. What is the result on their health decisions?

VEDANTAM: Well, Banerjee and Zanella find something similar, which is that when a woman is given a breast cancer diagnosis, her female coworkers become less likely subsequently to get screened for breast cancer. Here he is again.

BANERJEE: We find that on average when a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, her co-workers - her immediate female coworkers - reduce their propensity to have a breast screening in the year in which the diagnosis takes place. And this impact is persistent for at least two more years after the diagnosis for that woman.

INSKEEP: Wow. So someone sitting there and saying there's a person over here who's got breast cancer and this is awful. And now I don't want to know about my own health situation.

VEDANTAM: That's right. And there were a couple of things in the data, Steve, that made me think that Zanella and Banerjee are really on to something because the data not only showed which women were diagnosed, but how serious their cancer was. So oncologists would say the stage and the grade of the cancer. And what the economists find is that the co-workers of the women with the most serious cancers are the most likely not to get screened, presumably because these coworkers are especially scared by what's happened to their colleague. Second, the data showed where the women worked physically at the company literally - where they sat and how far they were from one another. And what the economists find is that co-workers who are physically closer to the patient also become less likely to screen. And both of those things I think point to the idea that when you find out that a colleague has been affected, you're scared and you don't want to find out that you yourself might be affected.

INSKEEP: The more you know, the less you want to know.

VEDANTAM: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks very much.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. You can follow him on Twitter @HiddenBrain and follow us @nprgreen and @NPRinskeep. You can also follow this program on Twitter - it's @MorningEdition or just visit the MORNING EDITION Facebook page if you prefer. And there's much more ahead this morning on the radio and all day at your public radio station.

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