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Cancer Hits Americans in the Wallet, Study Finds

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 percent.
/ Source: Reuters

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 percent, 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,” said lead author Anna Zajacova of the University of Wyoming.

“Five weeks is actually a huge blow when this is an average number,” she told Reuters Health by phone.

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 labor market earnings dropped 40 percent 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 the journal 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. labor law and labor culture is among most severe compared to almost every other developed country,” 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, 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,” said Dr. Craig Earle of the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research in Canada, who was not part of the new study.

Cancer diagnosis and treatment can have a significant impact on ability to work, at least in Canada and the U.S., Earle 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,” said Janet S. de Moor of the National Cancer Institute.

The Cancer and Careers organization provides advice and tools to help people with cancer be successful at work, de Moor told Reuters Health by email.

Most household bankruptcies are caused by illness, Zajacova said. Currently there are nearly 14 million cancer survivors in the U.S.

“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.