Cancer care providers should talk with cancer patients soon after diagnosis about their goals for continuing or returning to work and consider referring them to counselors and other resources, according to experts. 

The experts outlined ways in which health care providers and employers can support cancer patients and their caregivers at a recent National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) oncology policy summit.1

“When [health care providers] take that social history, ‘What do you do for work?’ is a very important part of the conversation,” said one of the speakers at the summit, Angela A. Mysliwiec, MD, medical director of oncology at WellMed, a network of health care providers for older adults. 

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Health care providers should go into detail about what a patient’s work entails and their goals for continuing to work during or after treatment, Dr Mysliwiec added. Through these conversations, providers can talk about how treatment options may affect patients’ time, energy, and ability to do their work.  

As Dr Mysliwiec and other experts at the summit discussed, the ability of patients to fulfill their work goals while receiving treatment or follow-up care depends on the complicated interplay between patients, their caregivers, health care teams, and employers. 

Some processes are already in place to support patients’ careers, such as training nurses to act as patient advocates and developing support programs for caregivers. However, the experts say, more needs to be done. 

Determine the Patient’s Work Priorities

Misconceptions are a major barrier for cancer patients in the workplace, according to Rebecca V. Nellis, executive director of Cancer and Careers, a nonprofit organization that helps employees with cancer. 

“Everybody comes to the table with [misconceptions],” Nellis said when speaking at the NCCN summit. “You can find them with your medical provider, your employers, your family, your coworkers.” 

It is critical that every member of a patient’s health care team understand their work priorities, Nellis added. 

“Do you work because it is your greatest passion, or do you work because it makes you feel normal? Do you work because you cannot live without the health benefits? It is usually a combination of those things,” Nellis explained. 

A 2018 survey by Cancer and Careers and Harris Interactive suggested that most cancer patients and survivors want to continue working.2 In fact, 74% of the patients and survivors surveyed said that work provides a source of personal pride and accomplishment that is critical for recovery. 

Nurses are often the ones who talk with patients about their work needs and goals, said Randy Jones, PhD, RN, professor and associate dean for partner development and engagement at the University of Virginia School of Nursing, when speaking at the NCCN summit.

Nurses can also address patients’ concerns, such as disclosing their condition to their employer and requesting time off for treatment, he added. 

“When we train our nursing students, we talk about communication and building the rapport with patients and caregivers quickly,” Dr Jones said. 

Depending on each patient’s situation, nurses can also connect them with community health navigators and counselors to help them learn about available resources, such as financial and transportation support, Dr Jones explained.