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Survivorship in the Workplace

Office Workers GroupThe cost of cancer to U.S. employers is an estimated $264 billion a year in medical care and lost productivity. And while cancer patients make up just 1.6 percent of the privately insured population, they are responsible for 10 percent of employers' medical claim costs, as well as a large proportion of long-term and short-term disability claims, according to the National Business Group on Health.

But with the growing number of cancer survivors (close to 13 million currently, with estimates of 18 million by 2022), and approximately 80 percent of survivors of working age returning to their jobs, employers today must explore ways not only to manage their bottom line, but also to help the cancer patient, his or her family, and fellow employees, as cancer is an experience that affects more than the patient alone.

For employees with cancer, workdays will necessarily be disrupted by cancer treatments, absences, personal leaves, or periods of short-term disability. But for many, continuing to work, both as they go through diagnosis, treatment, and beyond, creates a sense of normalcy (not to mention providing much-needed financial benefits).

But despite the best intentions, continuing to work comes with specific challenges, not only for the cancer patient/survivor, but to the employer and fellow employees as well:

  • Fatigue, which affects 70% to 100% of those actively receiving cancer treatment; for some, this fatigue can last well beyond the end of treatment.
  • Neurocognitive changes, also referred to as “chemo-brain,” which can result in the temporary disruption of cognitive or thinking processes and include memory impairment and reduced concentration.
  • Pain, which can be a problem, depending on the type of cancer and the treatment and its after-effects.
  • Post-traumatic stress symptoms, which affect an estimated 80% of cancer survivors and are often sparked by anniversaries of the diagnosis and other triggers associated with cancer treatment (i.e., upcoming medical appointments or tests).

To help cancer patients and survivors with such challenges, the financial protection benefits company Unum suggests that employers draw upon such resources as employee assistance programs, and disease management and wellness services. Additional responses might include:

  • Offering constructive coaching and feedback on performance
  • Providing for flexibility at the workstation (assistive devices, more comfortable seating, etc.)
  • Allowing time and space for breaks
  • Adapting work schedules around times when fatigue and pain may be the worst
  • Establishing solutions for specific job tasks, such as checklists to ensure accuracy

Because of the growing number of employees affected by cancer (either as patients, survivors, or caregivers) the National Business Group on Health also recommends that employers review their short-term and long-term disability policies and procedures; provide employees with information about the Family Medical Leave Act; develop workplace Human Resource (HR) policies related to serious illnesses, including cancer; establish good practices in dealing with cancer in the workplace; provide a framework for supporting employees affected by cancer; and provide reasonable workplace accommodations for employees with cancer and other serious illnesses, such as gradual return to work, part-time employment or telecommuting for a few weeks before resuming work full-time, flexible schedules, and job-sharing.

And as sharing the cancer experience is about more than the bottom line, employers might consider starting a cancer support group to help employees with cancer and their loved ones and colleagues understand cancer, manage their lives through treatment and recovery, and find the support they need.


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