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Occupational Breast Cancer – What you need to know

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Breast cancer is among the most commonly diagnosed cancers in Australia, and the second most common in women. Around 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer by the time they are 85, most often in women older than 40.

Although 99% of breast cancer diagnoses are in women, breast cancer also affects many men, with 1 in 667 men likely to be diagnosed by the age of 85. Gender diverse people taking female hormones are also at an increased risk of breast cancer.

What is Breast Cancer?

Breast cancer is a type of cancerous tumour in the breast. It begins as an abnormal growth of cells in the breast region, most often in the lining of the breast lobules (the glands that produce milk), or the ducts (which carry milk to the nipples). If these abnormal cells grow, they can form a lump called a tumour. Not all tumours are cancerous, and those that are cancerous are called ‘malignant’ tumours which have a risk of spreading to other parts of the body.

Some people can have an increased genetic risk of breast cancer which runs in their family, but only 5-10% of breast cancer diagnoses have this genetic risk factor. The strongest risk factors for breast cancer are alcohol consumption, smoking, being overweight and being over the age of 50.

Can my work cause Breast Cancer?

Some occupations can increase the risk of breast cancer, particularly those exposed to ionizing radiation. This is relevant to occupations regularly exposed to x-rays, such as the following industries:


  • Radiologists
  • Radiographers
  • Radiotherapists
  • Dental workers

Manufacturing and industry

  • Industrial radiography workers
  • Mineral sand and uranium mining/processing workers


  • Customs officers

Nuclear industry

  • Those who work with isotopes


  • Those exposed to toxic fumes

Research has also shown that sedentary, shift and night work and exposure to benzene, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and pesticides may also cause an increased risk of developing breast cancer.

Signs and Symptoms

Not all changes to the breast are breast cancer, but signs and symptoms to look out for include:

  • A lump, lumpiness or thickening in the breast, especially is only in one breast.
  • A change in the size or shape of the breast, or swelling.
  • Change in shape, crusting, sores, ulcers, redness, pain in the nipple.
  • Discharge from the nipple.
  • Nipple inverting (turning in) when it used to stick out.
  • Dimpling, rash, itchiness, scaly appearance or unusual redness on the breast skin.
  • Swelling or discomfort in the armpit or near the collarbone
  • Ongoing and unusual pain not related to the menstrual cycle that remains after your period and is in one breast only.

It’s important to check your breasts occasionally to monitor any possible changes.

The above symptoms do not mean you must have breast cancer, and it is important to discuss any concerns with your doctor.

What can I do to Protect myself at work?

If you work in an industry with exposure to x-rays or other sources of ionizing radiation, your workplace should have methods in place to manage risks of exposure. This includes monitoring person exposure, surveys and area monitoring of radiation levels, proper recordkeeping and reporting as well as worker training on radiation protection.

Am I eligible for WorkCover compensation if I have Breast Cancer? How can I prove that it was caused by my work?

A worker diagnosed with breast cancer may be entitled to WorkCover compensation based on the nature of their employment (whether current or former employment).

It must be shown that the nature of your employment significantly increased the risk of you developing breast cancer, rather than you proving that your current or past employment with a specific employer is the actual cause.

A worker diagnosed with an occupational disease may be entitled to claim WorkCover compensation for:

  • Weekly loss of income benefits
  • Medical and like expenses
  • Impairment Benefit (no fault lump sum)
  • In some circumstances, damages for pain and suffering and loss of earnings

You may also be entitled to other benefits regardless of whether you qualify for WorkCover compensation, including total and permanent disablement benefits from your superannuation policy.

Firefighter Presumptive Rights

Firefighters are susceptible to developing a range of cancers including breast cancer due to the nature of their work; increasing their exposure to carcinogenic substances. Accordingly in 2019 the Victoria Government enacted law providing presumptive rights to career and volunteer firefighters. This means that they will be automatically entitled to WorkCover compensation under the presumption that their cancer was caused by their service, provided they have been diagnosed from 1 June 2016 with one of the 15 prescribed cancers and had served in operational roles for the corresponding prescribed minimum number of years for that specific cancer. Breast cancer, along with cervical and ovarian cancer were added as prescribed cancers in late 2023.

What to do if you think you have Occupational Breast Cancer

If someone considers they may have occupational breast cancer, they should see their general practitioner or specialist to determine if they have any conditions or diseases that may be due to the nature of their employment. It is important they give an occupational history. Given that the period between exposure and the onset of symptoms can be lengthy by decades for some diseases and illness, early preventative measures and detection is recommended. We also recommend you contact our specialist legal team who can help support you through this process.