In 2004, cancer cost the U.S. economy and employers as much as four Katrinas--a total of $209.9 billion. The National Institutes of Health estimates that $74 billion of that resulted from direct medical costs, $118.4 billion by lost productivity from premature death and $17.5 billion by lost productivity from illness.
With such lost productivity costs, it's no surprise that cancer was the No. 1 cause of long-term work absences in the United States in 2005--for the fifth year running-- according to the annual report on disability trends put out by UnumProvident, the country's largest provider of group and individual disability income protection insurance.
Cancer was responsible for 12 percent of the long-term disability claims filed with UnumProvident in 2005.
Employers should not feel powerless, however, in the face of the "C word." Researchers for the American Institute for Cancer Research, a national charity dedicated to cancer prevention, found that 30 percent to 40 percent of cancers might be preventable through healthier eating, exercise, weight loss and other lifestyle factors. Another 30 percent could be prevented by not smoking.
A recent study in the "New England Journal of Medicine" suggested that 14 percent of cancer deaths in men, and 20 percent in women, were linked to being overweight.
Healthy habits --such as weight loss and control, eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and less junk and fatty foods, moderation in drinking and not smoking--make a difference in whether someone gets cancer or not.
What does this tell employers?
"Lifestyle is a major influence on the development of cancer," said Karen Collins, a registered dietician and nutrition advisor for the AICR, "and while employers certainly can't force a lifestyle on someone, they certainly can help to promote it either both by promoting awareness or by changing the environment to make the healthy habits easier."
Employers can include wellness programs, smoking cessation courses and cancer screenings in their overall company health plan, for instance.
Collins rattled off a number of other strategies that could encourage and assist employees with their weight loss and healthier living goals: organizing group fitness classes on-site; hosting courses by professional nutritionists; including flyers in paycheck envelopes that remind about cancer screenings and proper nutrition; or placing a sign at elevators to encourage employees to take the stairs.
"What does this cost them compared to the benefits achieved?" Collins asked.
June 1, 2006
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