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More late-stage cancers diagnosed in CO post-pandemic

An oncology social worker discusses how workplaces and communities can better support those with late-stage cancer.
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(stock photo)

Routine cancer screenings were postponed during the height of the pandemic in Colorado — and across the country — leaving more people with later-stage cancers, according to research published recently in the JAMA Oncology journal.

Dennis Heffern, an oncology social worker at Kaiser Permanente in Colorado, said those who’ve been diagnosed with cancer are not only dealing with the personal impact to their lives, but the economic impact as well.

“People are concerned now that they are going to go into treatment and have income disrupted — difficulty paying their normal, regular bills, and then in addition in this day and age, navigating significant out-of-pocket costs related to their cancer treatment,” Heffern said.

Around 90% of cancer screenings in the U.S. were postponed during the worst months of the pandemic, the JAMA research shows. 

The surge of later-stage cancer patients means it’s very important for local communities — particularly employers — to build supportive cultures for those patients, Heffern said.

Employers need to “appreciate that cost is a very real issue” for employees who have a cancer diagnosis, he said.

“Even with very good benefits and good insurance, a patient may shoulder a significant cost.”

At least half of all cancer survivors in the country are of working age, according to the American Cancer Society. Employers not only need to help their workers secure well-rounded benefits, but they need to ensure that survivors of late-stage cancers have a job to come back to when their treatment is over, Heffern said.

“The connotation is, ‘that’s really grave and really terminal,’ by certain definitions, and we are having considerable success helping people stay alive, and managing cancer as a chronic illness,” he said. “I actually have people who have stage four illness who are working and capable of working and producing for their employers.”

Businesses also need to make sure they encourage employees to take time off for preventive cancer screenings, he said. 

It’s important for employers to understand the U.S. Department of Labor’s Family and Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act in an effort to best support employees who have cancer, Heffern said.

The American Cancer Society provides resources for helping cancer patients afford prescription drugs and staying up to date on screenings. Kaiser Permanente also offers Medical Financial Assistance, 

Family members, friends and coworkers can support those who have late-stage cancer by asking how they can help, and not defining someone by their cancer, Heffern said.

“We don’t do this with other illnesses — cardiac conditions, diabetes, kidney disease,” he said. “We just say ‘people are living with that’ — people are living with cancer as well, and it does not have to be such a large element in the room that it’s historically been made out to be.”