What Is Cancer Survivorship–and Why Does It Matter for Employers?

cancer survivorship

The importance of paying attention to cancer survivorship

No one wants to think about cancer. And why would they? It’s a horrible disease that impacts hundreds of thousands of people per year.

But it’s precisely because it impacts so many that we must think about it, whether we like it or not. Thankfully, we have learned the importance of preventive measures. We go for cancer screenings in the name of proactivity—though screening participation rates in the U.S. are far from ideal; of those eligible for colorectal screening, for example, more than 40% have never gotten one or are not up to date. And many of us have (unfortunately) had to learn the language of cancer treatment in order to support others on their cancer journeys—or better navigate our own.

As important as prevention and treatment are, the cancer care spectrum doesn’t stop there. Cancer survivorship is also key to the cancer care conversation—and employers who want to best support those with a cancer diagnosis should understand this stage and ensure support for it is included in their cancer benefits.

What is the cancer care spectrum? 

Our focus in this post is on cancer survivorship—the final phase of the cancer control continuum—but it’s useful to learn about that continuum in full. Developing that big-picture knowledge can help you more effectively empathize with people at every stage of the cancer experience.

cancer care spectrum for cancer survivorship post
Examples of activities in each phase, from etiology to cancer survivorship. This chart is not all-encompassing.
  • Etiology is the complex study of what causes cancer. Many factors are at play. Per the National Institutes of Health, causes may be environmental (e.g., tobacco use, chemical exposure, radon) or genetic (e.g,. a BRCA gene mutation). Medication exposure, infectious agents, and health behaviors can also contribute.
  • At the prevention stage, individuals take steps to minimize their risk of a cancer diagnosis, possibly as a result of genetic testing that has shown that their risk is high. Prevention measures include things like diet, sun protection, HPV vaccines, and exercise.
  • Detection is the identification of cancer in the body, sometimes through routine screenings and other times with the help of labs or tests prescribed by a physician after a patient presents certain concerning symptoms. Cancer can be detected via methods such as mammograms, colonoscopies, or blood tests, among others.
  • Diagnosis happens after detection when someone is informed of the results of their screenings and/or other tests. At this point, an oncologist should offer treatment options and create space for collaborative, informed decision-making.
  • Treatment looks different for every cancer and every person. Symptom management, chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery—or a combination—can be part of a treatment plan.
  • Cancer survivorship is all about what happens after treatment.

While end-of-life care isn’t listed as part of the continuum, it’s worth noting that, if all treatment pathways have been exhausted and were unsuccessful, end-of-life conversations (e.g., how the patient would like to spend the remainder of their life) may come into play.

Now that we’ve reviewed the cancer care spectrum, let’s dive more specifically into cancer survivorship.

Because here’s the thing: Experts project there will be more than 26 million cancer survivors living in the U.S. by 2040 (up from 15.5 million in 2016). And, unfortunately, this population is at risk for additional diseases, conditions, and complications—it’s important that we know how to support them and their health.

Watch our webinar about how to best support employees with cancer here.

What is cancer survivorship?

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), a cancer survivor is anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer. Survivorship can be discussed with a range of starting points, but for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll be looking at it specifically as the time period that begins after a patient has completed their treatment.

Survivorship looks different for everyone, just like cancer looks different for everyone. In thinking about ways to best support folks in this stage, it’s helpful to consider the NCI’s idea of cancer survivorship as the “balance of life” after diagnosis and treatment.

The circumstances of an individual’s life after diagnosis and treatment will be determined largely by their experience with and results of treatment. Some survivors continue to navigate their cancer on a daily basis, while others are completely cancer-free—and everything in between. Resources for survivors in the workplace should be similarly wide-ranging.

Why is it important for employers to know about cancer survivorship?

Receiving a cancer diagnosis is a truly life-changing and often shattering moment—and while employees will appreciate support from their companies in those early days, they’ll need support later on as well. Understanding cancer survivorship will help you ensure that survivors in your workplace have the resources and care they need for the long term, too.

The cancer journey doesn’t end when treatment does

Making it through the treatment stage is a huge milestone for anyone who’s been diagnosed with cancer. All too often, though, the people supporting an individual with cancer assume that their support is no longer needed because treatment is complete. Employers who continue their support into the cancer survivorship phase prove themselves at a superior level in terms of employee care.

A cancer diagnosis marks a fundamental shift in a person’s life, and expecting them to return to “normal” after treatment is unrealistic and, frankly, unfair.

Employers can help folks cope with a new normal after treatment by offering various resources, such as mental health and nutrition support. Meeting with employees after treatment to discuss options adapting schedules (if possible) and other potential changes in the workplace will also go a long way toward demonstrating the organization’s support.

The late effects of cancer treatment—bone loss, eye problems, heart problems, and more—can linger long-term or even only appear for the first time months or years after treatment ends. Researchers found, for example, that the risk of developing cardiovascular disease is 42% higher for adult cancer survivors than for those who never had cancer. The risk of heart failure is 52% higher and the risk of stroke is 22% higher. And one in five cancer survivors reported severe post-traumatic symptoms more than five years after they received their initial diagnosis.

For these reasons and more, maintaining open lines of communication well into the cancer survivorship stage is absolutely crucial.

Cancer survivors will still need help

Aside from educational resources, mental health support, and the reassurance that people at work have their back for the long haul, those in the cancer survivorship phase require follow-up care. Employers can ensure that impacted employees take the necessary next steps by offering information about providers to see after treatment (and coverage for those providers). While the fear of a recurrence is pretty much inevitable, cancer survivors who trust their companies and the coverage provided to them may feel more secure as they navigate health decisions going forward.

The reality of cancer is a scary, stressful, emotional one—but with the right resources and support in the workplace, survivors can take on life after treatment with the confidence and education necessary to establish a new normal. Employers have the power to help make that happen.

Learn about Carrum’s holistic, person-centered approach to cancer care.

The information contained on this page is for informational purposes only. No material is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.