Sunday 5 June was Cancer Survivors’ Day. This is a timely reminder that cancer is often survivable, given the right lifestyle, screening, diagnosis, and care. All of which are factors that employers are in a position to support.
Debra Clark, head of specialist consulting, Towergate Health & Protection, says: “Employee cancer services are often underutilised. Cancer care is included within a lot of employee benefits products but often the employers themselves are not aware of the full extent of the cover they may have arranged for their employees. Yet it’s vital that they’re aware: better understanding of the support available can lead to better health outcomes for employees.”
Many cancers are preventable. Around four in 10 UK cancer cases every year could be prevented, which equates to more than 135,000 every year(1). This is why it is so important for employees to be provided with health and wellbeing support. In the UK, smoking is the largest cause of cancer, and being overweight or obese is the second biggest cause. Employers can assist with both factors by engaging employees with lifestyle, exercise, nutrition support and specific support, such as smoking cessation programmes.
Many providers now offer reward schemes for good health behaviours (when employees take part in exercise, meet a step count, buy healthy food or join a mindfulness session, for example), and actively encourage employees to take responsibility for their own health.
Screening plays a hugely important part in improving cancer outcomes. For example, lung cancer can be screened with an at-home sample test kit, with results in less than two weeks. The survival rate of 5+ years for lung cancer is 61% if caught at stage one, 39% at stage two, 15% at stage three, and only 4% at stage four. However, currently, nearly half (47%) of all cases of lung cancer in the UK are not diagnosed until stage four.
“The message here is clear. Screening saves lives,” says Debra Clark. “Screening is a simple, cost-effective option that is easily implemented by employers and can be literally lifesaving.”
Offering access to virtual GPs has also become much more commonplace, and this can make a real difference in enabling employees to get concerns checked out.
Many cancers have very high survival rates. Melanoma, prostate, testicular, thyroid, follicular, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and breast cancer all have a survival rate of over 80% for five+ years and half (50%) of people diagnosed with cancer in England and Wales survive their disease for ten years or more. What is important, however, is for employees to receive good mental and physical care to help them through.
Cancer care through work
A perhaps surprising amount of cancer care is available to employees via the workplace. Group private medical insurance (PMI) has a wide range of cancer support. This often includes fast-tracked access to diagnosis and treatment, access to medicines and additional support which may not be available on the NHS.
Cutting waiting times
Within the NHS, the target is for at least 85% of patients to start their first cancer treatment within 62 days of an urgent GP referral. This target has not been met since Q3 2013/14(4). This is again where PMI can come into its own, ensuring a faster process in the treatment of cancer. Employees may choose to use a mix of NHS and private provision, to improve their access to care and lessen the burden on the NHS.
Employers should not underestimate the importance of post-cancer care. This too can be provided via health and wellbeing benefits and may include access to mental health support, therapy, physio, and rehab. For some employees, returning to work will be an important step in their recovery, and one for which they may need much support. It is possible for employers to offer access to specialist occupational health therapists, oncologists, and nurses to answer concerns and support return to work.
Support through cancer should follow the same four-pillars as any health and wellbeing support – physical, mental, social, and financial. An employer can ensure that employees with cancer and their families are provided for financially in many ways, from a lump sum on the diagnosis of cancer to payments if they are unable to work.
Cancer survival rates are higher in women than in men(5). While there may be biological factors, lifestyle may be another factor, alongside the ‘ostrich’ factor, where men may be more likely to stick their head in the sand and ignore signs and symptoms. Tailoring communications to specific demographics on support for cancer is, therefore, an important part in reaching all colleagues.
Debra Clark concludes: “Survival rates for cancer can be high if the right steps are taken. Employers are in a position to make a real difference but only if they understand the support available and help employees utilise that support before, during, and after cancer.”