Understanding Cancer: Types, Impact, and Work Limitations

Cancer is a complex and diverse group of diseases characterized by the uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells. It affects millions worldwide and can be life-altering, not only for patients but also for their ability to maintain full-time employment. In this article, we will delve into what cancer is, explore some common types of cancer, and discuss the various ways it can disable someone from engaging in full-time work.

Cancer begins when healthy cells undergo genetic changes that cause them to grow and divide uncontrollably, forming a mass or tumor. These tumors can be either benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Malignant tumors have the potential to invade nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body through the bloodstream or lymphatic system, a process known as metastasis.

Common Types of Cancer:

  1. Breast Cancer: Breast cancer is one of the most prevalent types of cancer, affecting both men and women. It begins in the cells of the breast and can spread to nearby lymph nodes and other organs. The treatments for breast cancer, such as surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy, can cause physical and emotional side effects that may impact work capabilities.
  2. Lung Cancer: Lung cancer arises from abnormal cells in the lungs and is often linked to smoking or exposure to harmful substances. The disease can lead to respiratory difficulties, chronic cough, fatigue, and complications that may hinder an individual’s ability to engage in full-time work.
  3. Prostate Cancer: Prostate cancer is the most common cancer among men and typically develops in the prostate gland. Treatment options, such as surgery or radiation therapy, can cause urinary and sexual dysfunction, which may affect work performance and productivity.
  4. Colorectal Cancer: Colorectal cancer affects the colon or rectum and can cause symptoms like changes in bowel habits, abdominal pain, and fatigue. Treatment regimens can lead to gastrointestinal issues and overall weakness, impacting a person’s capacity to work full time.
  5. Leukemia: Leukemia is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow, affecting the production of normal blood cells. It can cause anemia, fatigue, and increased susceptibility to infections, which may result in frequent absences and reduced work efficiency.
  6. Lymphoma: Lymphoma is a cancer that originates in the lymphatic system, a part of the immune system. It can cause swollen lymph nodes, fatigue, and flu-like symptoms, making it challenging to maintain regular work schedules.

Ways Cancer Can Disable Someone from Full-Time Work:

  1. Physical Symptoms and Side Effects: Cancer and its treatments can lead to a range of physical symptoms and side effects, including pain, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and weakness. These symptoms can make it difficult for individuals to sustain the physical demands of full-time work or adhere to a regular work schedule.
  2. Treatment Regimens: Cancer treatment often involves intensive therapies like surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy, and targeted therapies. These treatments can be taxing on the body, leading to prolonged recovery periods and reduced work capacity.
  3. Emotional and Psychological Impact: A cancer diagnosis can take a significant toll on a person’s emotional and psychological well-being. Anxiety, depression, and stress are common reactions to a cancer diagnosis and can affect an individual’s ability to focus and perform effectively at work.
  4. Frequent Medical Appointments: Cancer treatment typically requires regular medical appointments, including consultations, chemotherapy sessions, radiation treatments, and follow-up visits. The need for frequent medical visits can result in time away from work, impacting work attendance and productivity.
  5. Reduced Immune Function: Many cancer treatments, especially chemotherapy, can suppress the immune system, making patients more susceptible to infections. This heightened vulnerability can lead to increased sick leave and time off work to prevent complications.
  6. Long-Term Effects and Late Side Effects: Some cancer treatments can result in long-term effects and late side effects that persist even after treatment ends. These effects can include cognitive difficulties, neuropathy, chronic pain, and hormonal imbalances, which can impair work performance and productivity.
  7. Workforce Accommodations: Depending on the nature and severity of the cancer and its treatments, individuals may require workplace accommodations. These can include flexible work hours, modified workstations, reduced workloads, or the option to work remotely to manage treatment-related challenges.

Court Assessment of Cancer Treatment

Most insurers will recognize the need for at least some time off from work during the active treatment of cancer. Most disability insurance denials come after the immediate treatment is complete and the insurer decides that the patient “should” be able to go back to work. Cancer survivors can have a number of ongoing symptoms related to their prior treatments that require restrictions and limitations related to work. They also may have long-term maintenance therapy with drugs that continue to cause exhaustion and cognitive deficits. Because cancer can reoccur and the maintenance treatment for it can span years, these cases are often susceptible to denials based on a pre-existing condition if the insured tries to change jobs.

  • In Kieserman v. Unum Life Ins. Co. of Am., 574 F. Supp. 3d 896, 900 (W.D. Wash. 2021), emergency physician Dr. Kieserman was undergoing chemotherapy as maintenance therapy for Stage IV breast cancer after a full year of aggressive treatment. She returned to work part time, but Unum insisted she should be able to work full time, as she reported no other symptoms than “some fatigue.” The court disagreed, noting that Unum’s reliance on Dr. Kieserman’s exercise and vacation schedule was misplaced. She exercised because she was instructed to by her doctors, and disabled individuals are allowed to go on vacation without having to return to work.
  • Cindy Brown was the COO of a healthcare management company when she developed cancer. Brown v. Unum Life Ins. Co. of Am., 356 F. Supp. 3d 949, 956 (C.D. Cal. 2019) She was able to return to work part time after completing her initial treatment, with many accommodations. Unum decided that she “should” be able to work full time despite her doctor’s permanent limitation of no more than 20 hours per week. The court again disagreed, and determined that Plaintiff was disabled under the terms of the Plan.

Resolving Insurance Conflicts

Insurance companies actively seek reasons to deny claims. Even with something as indisputable as a cancer diagnosis, they will try to find ways to argue that you are not sufficiently sick. Understand that you do not need to accept their determination. Courts generally agree that chemotherapy and other forms of maintenance treatment for cancer cause fatigue, cognitive issues and other side effects that are disabling. Disability from cancer does not always end when the immediate treatment ends.

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