The workplace effects of cancer as a chronic illness

Rising survival rates are making cancer one of Canada’s fastest-growing chronic diseases.

Dina Linardos, the nursing director at CAREpath Inc., explained to attendees at the Benefits Canada’s Chronic Disease at Work conference that cancer retains a certain image in public consciousness that has varied little over the last 30 or 40 years.

“Most people don’t think of cancer as a chronic illness,” she said.

“What we hear in the media is about the acute phase, the death rate and end stages.”

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But that distorts the reality of the situation, according to Linardos, who quoted Canadian Cancer Society research showing there were more than 200,000 new cases of all forms of the disease in 2017. Based on current trends, she said about 60 per cent of those people will survive at least five years after diagnosis.

“Overall death rates have ben steadily declining over the last three decades,with an accelerated decline from 2001 to 2013,” said Linardos, noting the improvement was most evident for those in the age range of 40-59 years old.

The effect is even more significant for certain types of cancer, allowing more and more sufferers to return to work, she added.

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Still, Linardos suggested successful transitions require careful assessments of both employees and workplaces to ensure both are ready for workers’ return.

Whether their cancer is in full or partial remission, she said most patients are likely to have an extensive regimen in place, including frequent appointments with specialists and ongoing drug treatment, as well as the side-effects that come with it. Linardos noted they’re also often reticent to report any physical or emotional struggles they experience.

“There’s a lot of pride,” she said. “It’s taken them an hour in the morning to get their hair done, to get dressed and to look well, but they’re not feeling well. That initial impression is that they are fully recovered but by 2 [o’clock] in the afternoon, that’s it, they’ve had it for the day.”

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Linardos said employers can help by reintegrating patients gradually into the workplace or making changes to their working environment or responsibilities to ease the transition, depending on individual employees’ needs.

“I cannot emphasize enough the importance of communication,” said Linardos. “We try to empower our patients to talk about their symptoms, to put the right words into context and to stop feeling guilty.”