Helping employees navigate cancer

Addition to employee benefits can support workers during difficult time
By Peter Anglin and Mike Waechter
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/09/2013

When employees are diagnosed with cancer, they begin a long and difficult journey through a strained and often intimidating health-care system.

Not only can this journey take its toll on their physical and emotional well-being, it also has a harmful effect on their productivity and the employer’s bottom line.

The incidence of cancer in the workplace is expected to increase as the workforce ages. This means many experienced and valuable employees are at higher risk, which could result in the increased absenteeism of middle and senior managers.

Men have a 45 per cent lifetime probability (or one-in-2.2 chance) of developing cancer while women have a 40 per cent probability (or one-in-2.5 chance), according to the Canadian Cancer Society. About one in four Canadians is expected to die of cancer.

These are rather alarming numbers that come with a significant price to the patients, government and employers. The overall cost of treatment to the government health-care system (and tax-paying public) is compounding at a high rate and the cost of cancer-related drugs continues to rise each year.

Nearly two in three employed Canadians with benefit packages feel cancer support services are a valued component of an employee benefit package, according to a 2013 Ipsos Reid survey, and 73 per cent of Canadians report that the inclusion of cancer support services in a benefit package is a good way to retain employees and attract top talent.

Patient challenges

Well before a diagnosis is even made, patients often face a long and frustrating process. Numerous tests may be required at different and distant facilities, accompanied by encounters with a variety of technicians and medical specialists. And, of course, there is the agonizing wait for test results.

When the oncologist finally delivers the news, the patient may be too shocked or overwhelmed to ask important questions about next steps, treatments and side effects. Worst of all, there are few resources patients can turn to for clarification, validation and confidence.

But the diagnosis is only the beginning. Once in the cancer system, many patients discover there is no one single person in charge of managing their case. While subspecialists focus all of their new knowledge on the immediate problem at hand, they may not have the time or resources to treat the patient as a person who is still in shock from dealing with the fact he has cancer.

On top of this, inordinate delays in accessing cancer treatment centres have become commonplace in an overstretched health-care system, which can increase the patient’s stress and frustration.

The mental anguish patients suffer through this process is often as devastating as the cancer itself. Compassion and guidance may be as important to the treatment as access to the latest drugs or therapies. While these comforts can be delivered by a patient’s family doctor, this individual is often not available or has not been included as part of the overall treatment plan.

The public system has started to develop complementary services needed to address these challenges, and programs and personnel have been deployed to:

• provide emotional support during waiting times

• guide patients to appropriate treatment venues

• guide family doctors

• educate patients

• assist in the acquisition of expensive treatments

• provide supportive care (such as exercise and nutrition).

However, the approach to date has been piecemeal and availability varies greatly by location and jurisdiction. Simply put, publicly funded services may not be enough — patients are often confused and frustrated in not receiving sufficient advice, care and support.

And while many employers provide some protection through traditional group benefits coverage, such as disability and other income protection, these benefits do not always address the most severe consequences from the perspective of the cancer patients themselves.

What can employers do?

One of the most effective and helpful steps employers can take is to implement a cancer care assistance program as part of the group benefits program. Such programs are designed to meet the challenges faced by cancer victims, their families and co-workers head-on by providing patients with more support than is available through the public system.

It provides employees with an advocate to guide them through the entire cancer journey — before, during and after any absences from work — to build a path from diagnosis to treatment and, hopefully, a full recovery.

More specifically, a cancer care assistance program can support the patient, his family and the health-care team in a number of ways:

• Navigating individuals and their families through the health-care system and complementing the services and programs available publicly.

• Ensuring medical best practices are used.

• Helping to reduce the physical and emotional impact of cancer.

• Helping to minimize toxic treatment side effects.

• Working in collaboration with the family doctor and specialists to ensure everything possible is being done to help, and everyone involved fully understands all recommendations.

• Reducing the risk of recurrence of cancer and other chronic diseases with similar risk factors.

• Reducing the risk of late-appearing complications.

• Facilitating the return-to-wellness and return-to-work process.

As well, cancer care assistance programs provide:

• expert medical advice and support through all phases of treatment

• clear explanations of options for tests and treatments

• guidance to alternate treatment locations

• emotional support for employees and their dependants.

Employers should also focus on communication and resources. They may want to consider providing employees with education or lunch-and-learn sessions to ensure they understand the program and know where to access information and points of contact for assistance.

The group insurer and cancer care assistance provider also have resources to educate employees, such as print material, videos and websites.

As the incidence of cancer continues to grow, and more employees and employers are impacted, it is in the best interest of all to provide the best in cancer support at the workplace.

Through a cancer care assistance program designed and delivered by experienced oncology professionals, employers can help employees and their families navigate their difficult cancer journey, encourage the best possible health outcomes and, where possible, facilitate a timely and healthy return to work.

Peter Anglin is a medical director at CAREpath, a cancer assistance program provider in Toronto. He can be reached at, (416) 595-2720 or visit for more information. Mike Waechter is director of group marketing at Equitable Life of Canada, a mutual life insurance company in Waterloo, Ont. He can be reached at, (519) 904-8090 or for more information.

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