Cancer-Related Pain Linked to Poor Employment and Financial Outcomes in Survivors

August 4, 2022
Brielle Benyon
Brielle Benyon

Brielle Benyon, Senior Editor for CURE®, has been with MJH Life Sciences since 2016. She has served as an editor on both CURE and its sister publication, Oncology Nursing News. Brielle is a graduate from The College of New Jersey, where she is pursuing a Master’s in Public Health (part-time). Outside of work, she enjoys spending time with family and friends, CrossFit and wishing she had the grace and confidence of her toddler-aged daughter.

Cancer-related pain, especially when severe, is associated with negative effects on patients’ employment and financial status, recent findings showed.

Cancer survivors frequently report experiencing pain as a result of treatment or the disease itself.

While pain has been shown to decrease patients’ quality of life, it may also affect their employment and financial situation too, according to recent data that were published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

“For this study, we wanted to see if pain was contributing to employment disruptions and financial hardship among individuals with cancer, so future programs focused on improving economic outcomes could also include addressing untreated pain,” study author Dr. Michael T. Halpern, a medical officer in the Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences at the National Cancer Institute in Rockville, Maryland, said in an interview with CURE®.

Pain Impacts Survivors’ Employment, Financial Status

Halpern and his colleagues analyzed survey data from 1,213 patients diagnosed with cancer and assessed for employment concerns (such as taking time off work, changing to a less demanding job, retiring early), and financial concerns (including uncovered medical expenses and going into debt because of cancer), as well as self-reported pain.

The survey asked patients about their pain levels over the last seven days. A total of 43% of patients reported no pain; 29% mild pain; 18% moderate pain; and 10% severe pain.

Findings showed that pain was associated with poorer employment and financial outcomes, in patients and survivors.

Those with severe pain tended to have even more unfavorable outcomes, particularly when it came to early employment. Among survivors who said that they planned to retire early, 21% reported severe pain. For those who did not plan on retiring early, only 6% reported severe pain.

“Pain can make it difficult for someone to perform the essential functions of their job and can force them to make changes to what they do and how much they work,” Halpern explained. “Pain could disrupt anyone’s ability to work at the best of times; when someone is also potentially dealing with other effects of cancer, such as other long-term symptoms or financial hardships, the effects of pain may be even more disruptive.”

Fellow Survivors Report Similar Difficulties

In a #CureConnect question, CURE® surveyed its audience on social media about how cancer-related pain impacted their careers, and some of the responses aligned with Halpern’s findings.

When asked, “Has cancer-related pain impacted your career,” Kelly H. wrote, “Absolutely. Neuropathy in my hands and feet. I work in a factory where I stand for eight hours.”

Makena M. responded, “Well due to cancer, my knee is bionic, so I’m constantly in pain when the knee is inflamed — even walking on a too hot day can do it. It’s not only distracting, it plays with your emotions too, when you’re trying to have a life, but pain keeps getting in the way.”

Another CURE® follower, Wen, shared a similar sentiment.

“It can distract me from fully concentrating in meetings when I’m in chronic back/muscle/bone pain, and I desperately need to stretch or move around, but everyone else is quietly still and concentrating,” They wrote

READ MORE: Cancer Changed My Relationship With Pain: ‘Being a Trooper’ Is Not Always a Good Thing

Speak Up to Address Cancer-Related Pain

Halpern advised that patients and survivors who are experiencing pain that is impacting their daily life should speak up to their health care providers about pain management — especially since he said prior research has shown that pain is oftentimes underreported in cancer survivors.

Clinicians may be able to prescribe medication or other therapies that can help ease the pain.

“Some individuals may not tell their health care provider they are experiencing pain; they may be afraid of what their pain means, worry about what their doctors will think about them, or be concerned about how their pain will be treated,” Halpern said. “Health care professionals need to encourage patients to discuss all their symptoms, including pain, and be prepared to appropriately treat symptoms when identified by patients.”

Individuals should also talk to their employer about the difficulties that they are experiencing.

“There are a number of accommodations that employers may be able to provide to help individuals with cancer be successful in their jobs,” Halpern said. “These may include changing the type of work being performed; taking more breaks or rest periods; or receiving special training or other types of assistance to help with job activities. Individuals may also want to explore changing their job hours to help deal with the effects of cancer and cancer treatment.”

Ultimately, more work needs to be done to address cancer-related pain in patients and survivors of the disease, as it can impact many areas of life.

“All of us experience pain at some time; we know that it is hard to focus and perform regular activities, particularly when pain is severe or persistent,” Halpern concluded.

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