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Cancer Survivors Return to Work

Monday, July 11, 2011
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With more people living and working longer, and medical treatments becoming ever more effective, an increasing number of cancer patients are returning to work after taking long-term-disability leaves for treatment.

"Years ago, if you had cancer, you very likely weren't coming back to work," says Robert Jacob, a director of health and productivity for Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Unum, a disability-benefit provider.

More effective treatments and longer working lives have changed that situation, experts say.

Unum claims data show more individuals returning to work after long-term-disability stints due to breast cancer, (from 47 percent in 2001 to 52 percent in 2008), colon cancer (from 23 percent to 30 percent) and prostate cancer (28 percent to 30 percent.)

Indeed, these converging trends are forcing a national dialogue, Jacob and other health experts say, on ways to approach cancer in the workplace and how best to craft return-to-work policies in such cases.

"Cancer is a disease of the 21st century," says Helen Darling, president and CEO of the Washington-based National Business Group on Health.

"Clearly," says Darling, "it is important that employers educate their [employees] about preventable forms of cancer. Moreover, employers need to implement strategies to manage and support employees who are diagnosed with cancer and also provide programs and services aimed at employee caregivers."

With more cancer survivors wanting to return to work, intermittent leave becomes far more crucial for their mental and psychological health, as well as physical, says Darling.

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The key, says Jacob, is to remain flexible yet consistent in how intermittent leave is handled, and to make sure the psychological impact of the disease is being treated as well. Depression and cancer often occur simultaneously, experts say.

"It's a cultural thing," Jacob says, "and it starts with communication and training," making sure managers know what to say to patients and co-workers, making sure everyone involved knows about their employee-assistance program and making sure that EAP is prepared for the level of psychological counseling that will be needed for all involved, including employees caring for cancer patients at home.

"What's really important to keep in mind with all diseases, including cancer," says Darling, "is that work can be a balm. ... Work becomes a place where the patient can connect with something else besides disease."

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