How can employers help reduce workforce cancer risk?

By Tracey Ward, Head of Business Development & Marketing at Generali UK Employee Benefits

In the last two years Check4Cancer has seen a huge rise in the number of employers focusing on cancer risk assessment and screening as part of employee benefit programmes. “They’re trying to protect their employees, as they recognise they’re perhaps not getting the support they should from the NHS,” says Professor Gordon Wishart, CEO and Chief Medical Officer of Check4Cancer, a leading early cancer detection company and one of Generali UK’s Wellbeing Investment Matching partners.

There are currently around 375,000 new cancer cases in the UK every year. This is predicted to rise to 500,000 by 2040, due to various risk factors, including: an increase in population size; an ageing population; and adoption of a western lifestyle.

The latter represents a ‘modifiable’ risk factor. In other words, something that can be controlled, or changed. Modifiable risk factors for cancer include: alcohol; smoking; obesity; lack of exercise; poor diet; and high blood sugar. It’s estimated that 4 in 10 cancer cases in the UK are preventable.

The challenge for people and business

Obviously, with an ageing population comes an ageing workforce. And considering cancer risk increases with age, employers will be impacted, says Professor Wishart. “As more and more people work until later in life and pressure on NHS services only grows, it will be an increasing challenge for employers to protect their workforce,” he says.

NHS data continues to show big delays in testing for cancer, diagnosing it and starting treatment quickly. In turn, delays mean that cancer has more chance to spread, is less likely to be treated successfully and is more likely to be exacerbated by stress and anxiety.

The latest NHS cancer waiting time data in England for January 2024, shows that only 62.3% of people received their diagnosis and started their first treatment within two months (or 62 days) of an urgent suspected cancer referral in January 2024. The target is 85%.

“And that’s only for those people who get in to an urgent referral pathway,” comments Professor Wishart. “Who knows how long those in non-urgent pathways are waiting. It’s those delays in treatment that have a real impact on survival.”

He says the same goes for cancer screening. “Access to screening represented a major issue due to the various lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic. And I’m not sure they’ve caught up completely with the three major screening programmes for breast, bowel and cervical cancer.

“The waiting time [62.3% against a target of 85%, as explained earlier] is currently the same whether people are referred because they have symptoms or whether they’re referred because a screening test has detected cancer, but they’re not yet symptomatic. So, all the benefits we hope you get from screening – in terms of earlier diagnosis, less treatment and better survival – are going to become diminished by the time people actually get to the treatment stage.”

We asked Professor Wishart what employers can do to help reduce their workforce’s cancer risk

  • Improve cancer awareness. Help the workforce understand the signs and symptoms to look out for, so they’ll get checked as soon as possible if they notice something, says Professor Wishart.
  • Individual risk assessment for cancer. This is a move away from screening based on population risk, and instead a move towards personal risk assessment. This allows for screening for those at ‘higher risk’ and education for individuals on how to reduce their personal risk.

Professor Wishart developed and pioneered the online personal cancer risk assessment tool MyCancerRisk. It consists of a single questionnaire, bringing together risk assessments for each of the six common types of cancer in the UK: bowel, breast, cervical, lung, prostate and skin cancer. The questionnaire helps identify those employees (and their dependents, aged 18+) at ‘higher risk’ so that they can be referred to Check4Cancer for personalised company-funded screening based on their risk and age. It also includes education about how to reduce their risk.

“There is now growing evidence that by targeting screening to those at ‘higher’ risk, a greater proportion of cancers can be detected, and more aggressive cancers can be diagnosed at an earlier stage,” adds Professor Wishart.

What can employers do to help those with symptoms or a diagnosis?

  • Utilise cancer diagnostic pathways via Private Medical Insurance (PMI). Where employees have symptoms, work with PMI partners to help get them into streamlined diagnostic pathways as quickly as possible.
  • Utilise cancer care pathways and return to work support as part of Group Income Protection (GIP). Once diagnosed, work with GIP partners to help employees access wellbeing support throughout their treatment and beyond, also rehabilitation and return to work support, as appropriate.

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All information contained herein represents the views and opinions of the author as at the date of writing and is provided for general information only. Nothing herein constitutes or is intended to constitute financial or other form of advice and no individual should rely upon the information provided in making a specific investment decision without first seeking independent professional advice.