Guidelines for supporting an employee with cancer

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For cancer patients, employment is more than financial security and healthcare benefits — it’s a support system.

Four out of every 10 people in the United States will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lifetime, according to the National Cancer Institute. That number is only expected to grow; by 2040, the number of cancer survivors is expected to reach more than 26 million — a 50% increase from last year.

“With a growing number of cancer survivors in the workforce, employers need to better understand and be equipped to help support them, given the challenges these employees may face,” said Candice Sherman, CEO of the Northeast Business Group on Health, in a report by the organization.

To help employers address the unique challenges faced by workers battling cancer, the Northeast Business Group on Health composed guidelines detailing how HR professionals can support these workers’ overall well-being.

“There are encouraging statistics that show an increase in the number of people surviving with cancer, but they often don't reveal how survivors are faring physically, mentally, socially or economically,” said Patricia Goldsmith, CEO of CancerCare — a nonprofit organization for cancer survivors. “Employers can play a key role in this experience. With more survivors active in the workforce today and in the future, the challenges and opportunities posed by cancer survivorship are important to understand and support.”

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While cancer patients are protected from job loss by the Americans with Disabilities Act and other employment laws, it behooves companies to check in and ensure these employees want to continue working during treatment. Maintaining financial security and access to health insurance are the primary reasons cancer patients continue working, according to the Northeast Business Group on Health guide.

“Some people are unable to work due to treatment or the effects of treatment, but many are able to continue to work or to return to work after some period,” Sherman said. “In fact, most cancer survivors are eager to work because it provides a coping mechanism, enables a sense of purpose and motivation, boosts self-confidence, fosters social support and aids in financial stability.”

The pandemic has only added to the challenge employees with cancer face, Goldsmith said. Taking the time to highlight employee benefits and programs designed specifically for cancer patients can dramatically improve their quality of life.

“The fear that we all have about COVID-19 is greatly magnified for cancer patients: fear about getting to medical appointments, fear about mass transit, fear about going to the grocery store to get supplies,” Goldsmith said.

Companies thinking about reopening their offices should consider letting cancer patients continue to work from home to prevent increased risk of contracting COVID-19, according to the guide. Employers should also take into account their employees’ mental health by directing them to an EAP and other mental health benefits, to help deal with feelings of loneliness.

“Cancer patients generally endure some sense of isolation, and COVID-19 has increased it,” says Kristie Redfield, clinical social worker at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “As offices reopen, cancer patients may need to stay home longer, but this, in turn, leads to more isolation.”

HR leaders should assess what mental health resources their healthcare insurer can offer cancer patients. Many insurance companies contract with nonprofit organizations that can connect patients with support groups. The nonprofit Look Good Feel Better, for example, offers cancer patients free beauty classes to help increase their self-esteem. Some insurance policies also cover the cost of wigs for those who’ve lost their hair to chemotherapy.

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Employers should also make sure managers understand the need for flexibility with cancer patients, who may need to take time off to attend doctor’s appointments. Maintaining open communication and being supportive can help make a difference.

“Opening the door for discussion and showing flexibility is very important,” Goldsmith said. “Cancer patients who feel supported by their employer are repaid over and over in loyalty and gratitude. Colleagues see this and realize their employer cares about them.”

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Employee relations Healthcare delivery Mental health benefits Coronavirus