How Much Does a Cancer Diagnosis Really Cost?

We all see the posts on Facebook. We have all heard the bad news, either involving a friend or maybe a friend or family member of someone we know.

So-and-so was diagnosed with cancer.

He’s only 45 years old and has a young family.

She just got divorced and has two kids at home to support.

The news came out of nowhere.

Talk about having to put your life on hold.

The expenses are piling up.

It’s terrifying to think of how this type of curve ball can impact an individual and their family. It’s scary to realize that a diagnosis like this doesn’t simply affect one’s health, but literally touches every single aspect of a life—mentally, spiritually, emotionally, physically, and financially.

Yes. Financially.

Even if a person has the best health insurance in the world, that fact alone doesn’t negate the reality that finances are going to be affected. And probably in a big way. No matter how early a cancer diagnosis might occur, a simple truth remains. It’s likely that the person facing the health issue is not going to be able to work—there is going to be downtime, there are going to be emotions and fears that need to be dealt with, and finances will be impacted. This is true both in the short- and long-term.

Income Plummets after a Cancer Diagnosis

The short-term impacts of a cancer diagnosis are probably something that is intuitively recognized. A person has doctor appointments to go to. There might be surgery. Time off from work is needed because they are simply incapable of managing their health and the daily demands of an office.

The list goes on.

But what about the long term?

A recent study conducted by sociologist Anna Zajacova at the University of Wyoming in Laramie examined data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. This particular study is ongoing, and has routinely asked a random sample of Americans about their physical and financial health at least once every two years beginning in 1968.ongoing, and has routinely asked a random sample of Americans about their physical and financial health at least once every two years beginning in 1968.

For individuals who reported a cancer diagnosis, the study showed that in the second year of learning about the disease, survivors were earning up to 40 percent less, on average, than they had been before becoming sick. In this regard, family members helped pick up the slack and fill the income gap. However, total family income dropped as well by more than 20 percent and reports show that this level remained for at least a year. The only spike or relative return to normal income levels was reported after five years had passed from the time of diagnosis.after learning about the disease, survivors were earning up to 40 percent less, on average, than they had been before becoming sick. In this regard, family members helped pick up the slack and fill the income gap. However, total family income dropped as well by more than 20 percent and reports show that this level remained for at least a year. The only spike or relative return to normal income levels was reported after five years had passed from the time of diagnosis.

The Reality of a Sickly Paycheck

During the first year of a diagnosis, the University of Wisconsin study showed that patients missed an average of five weeks of work. By the time the third year rolled around, a cancer survivor’s odds of being in the same position as they were prior to diagnosis dropped by nine percentage points.

And it turns out in this situation that the financial blow to a man is bigger than that experienced by a woman. For instance, among men who are in their prime working years—aged 25 to 64—a cancer diagnosis came with approximately seven to eight weeks off from work. Furthermore, a man’s odds of employment fell by an average of 20 percent. Then, looking at the third year post-diagnosis, a man’s wages, on average, were 60+ percent lower than they were before getting sick—and family income dropped as well. This is probably due to that fact that there is pay inequality in Corporate America, women and men are held to different standards on what is deemed “acceptable” reasons for being absent, and the fact that men have greater numbers in leadership and high earning roles. In fact, the impact to a woman’s income was too “statistically insignificant” to be recorded in the study’s findings.

Managing Cancer in the Workplace

Just like any grief-focused situation, a cancer diagnosis involving an employee will impact the workplace—and it’s true that many employees will try their hardest to continue to work after or even through their treatment. Moreover, for many people who have experienced ill health, remaining in or returning to work can actually help promote recovery and lead to better health outcomes. However, as a business owner, manager, or HR leader, you must face a reality too: There are going to be challenges.

While you may not always feel confident about how to best support an employee who is affected by cancer, you must work to understand how treatment can impact them, personally and professionally. Realize that they may not know how to approach the subject with you and might feel awkward about discussing something so personal. However, it is up to you to support them, and you must communicate openly. Consider the following tips:

  • Encourage a dialogue that involves your employee and their immediate supervisor; make sure to let the employee know that all information will be dealt with privately and sensitively. Knowing this can help them discuss their situation.
  • Let your employee lead the conversation, but ensure that you inquire about how they are feeling, how much time they will need off for appointments, and what should or should not be told to their colleagues.

As an employer, you must also have some information for your own reference as you enter into this delicate situation. Know your company policies for time off options, remote work flexibility, rights to protect the employee from discrimination, and insurance or special services that can help the employee during this probable downtime.

Finally, it’s also necessary for you to help strategize with your employee on financial matters. As most employees do not have unlimited paid time off and neither are they independently wealthy where they can afford to take weeks off of work unpaid, consider asking other employees who have a store of paid time off to donate their hours to the employee, or even (with the approval of the employee) start a GoFundMe page online that will benefit the individual and their family.

In closing, there are going to be many variables in play both in the short- and long-term when an individual faces and deals with a cancer diagnosis. Keep an open mind and ensure that an employee knows you support them. For more information on how to better assist employees who are facing life-changing situations, visit www.BLTStrategies.com.

Mary Ellen Wasielewski