Cancer diagnosis brings income loss for U.S. families: Study

Average adult misses 5 weeks of work in first year

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) — The average U.S. adult diagnosed with cancer will miss five weeks of work in the first year and see total family income decline by 20 per cent, according to a new study.

Those numbers may be even higher for some, as they average the experiences of people with various types and stages of cancer, and those who started out working full-time along with those who were not employed to begin with, the authors explain.

"This is average effects across the entire population and many are retired or stay-at-home parents, so the effect is diluted," lead author Dr. Anna Zajacova of the University of Wyoming told Reuters Health by phone.

"Five weeks is actually a huge blow when this is an average number," she said.

The researchers used data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics between 1999 and 2009, a nationally representative study involving 8,000 families, or about 17,000 adults, including about 1,000 individuals with a cancer diagnosis.

The researchers found that after a cancer diagnosis, hours worked decreased by about 200 hours, or five full-time weeks.

Annual labour market earnings dropped 40 per cent over the first two years and remained lower than before cancer diagnosis, though total family income often recovered within four years, the study team reported in an article online October 26 in Cancer.

Income losses were driven by male cancer survivors more so than female cancer survivors.

The adults without a cancer diagnosis had higher employment and income levels overall.

"U.S. labour law and labour culture is among most severe compared to almost every other developed country," Dr. Zajacova said. "There are no or very limited policies for sick leave or family leave, so the effects are likely to be worse in the U.S. than other developed countries."

There are few protections in place for U.S. workers who are diagnosed with cancer, she said.

The study was not large enough to compare the income impacts of different types or stages of cancer, she said.

"We were looking at the average impact of cancer," though one could argue that advanced lung cancer would have a more devastating effect than early breast cancer, Dr. Zajacova said.

"Some people just need a few days off for surgery for an early stage cancer and then they're done, while others would have longer and more intensive treatments including chemotherapy and radiation," Dr. Craig Earle of the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research in Canada, who was not part of the new study, told Reuters Health by email.

Human resources departments may be able to help newly diagnosed adults navigate the options of sick leave, short-term disability, and even early retirement, he said.

"In the U.S., the Family Medical Leave Act entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons with continuation of group health insurance coverage," Dr. Janet S. de Moor of the National Cancer Institute, told Reuters Health by email.

The Cancer and Careers organization provides advice and tools to help people with cancer be successful at work, Dr. de Moor said.

Most household bankruptcies are caused by illness, Dr. Zajacova said.

"What makes cancer particularly unique is it tends to strike fairly suddenly and can be very severe," making it almost impossible for people to prepare for this kind of blow, she said.

The National Institutes of Health supported this research. The authors reported no disclosures.

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