Cancer incidence is rising in the UK, posing a major issue for companies both in terms of employee wellbeing and the associated time and cost of accessing healthcare.
Evidence has shown that a proactive approach to managing cancer in the workplace can lead to better treatment outcomes, improved survival rates and better employee wellbeing.
With a reported 2.5 million people in UK currently living with cancer, the associated cost to the UK economy is calculated at £7.6 billion in lost wages and benefits. The impact of a cancer diagnosis in the workplace is wide-reaching, both on employers and employees.
With more than three million people missing their screening appointments in England during the COVID-19 pandemic, there has never been a better time to review the cancer strategy for employees.
Cancer education and prevention in the workplace
My own view is that cancer prevention, personal risk assessment and risk reduction strategies should become a cornerstone of any future cancer strategy.
We already understand many of the risk factors for common cancers, but greater education is required to make these risk factors more widely known to employees, with access to programmes that support behavioural change to lower an employee’s individual cancer risk.
By tackling lifestyle factors associated with bowel cancer, such as alcohol, smoking and obesity, 54% of bowel cancer cases in the UK could be avoided.
Risk stratified cancer screening
Current cancer screening services need to be updated to take account of personal rather than population risk and to address falling attendance rates for NHS screening programmes.
By assessing family history and lifestyle risk factors, and in the future DNA tests that detect tiny errors (SNPs), it is already possible to identify those at highest risk of a particular cancer. There is good evidence that using a risk-stratified approach can pick up a greater proportion of cancers while at the same time costing less for companies.
Many companies already provide access to cancer screening for their employees, according to age and sex. At Check4Cancer we have had much interest in our online tool that combines risk assessments for each of the six most common types of cancer in the UK: bowel, breast, cervical, lung, prostate and skin cancer.
The combined questionnaire identifies those at 'higher risk', so that they can be directed to appropriate screening services and, all employees who complete the questionnaire have access to an online Cancer Education Hub for guidance on the signs, symptoms and risk factors of common cancers. A cancer impact calculator (CIC) allows HR to assess the potential return on investment both overall and for individual cancer types.
An increased focus on cancer prevention using personal risk assessment and risk-stratified screening does require employees to take some responsibility for their own health and cancer risk. However, if employers provide the necessary education to allow employees to understand their personal risk and provide access to screening for those at highest risk then, the way that screening is delivered to the workforce can be revolutionised with benefits for both employees and employers.
Gordon Wishart is the founder and chief medical officer at Check4Cancer, and visiting professor of cancer surgery at Anglia Ruskin School of Medicine