Cancer Remains Top Cause of Disability Claims

May 8, 2008

For the seventh consecutive year, cancer was the leading reason for long-term disability absence in 2007, reports insurance provider Unum in its annual review of disability claims. Pregnancy was the No. 1 reason for short-term disability.

Top Causes of Disability Absence in 2007



12.2 percent

Complications of pregnancy

12.1 percent

Back injuries

11 percent

Other injuries

9.3 percent


Normal pregnancy

21 percent

Injuries (not including back)

10 percent

Digestive/intestinal diseases

7 percent

Back injuries

6 percent

Source: Unum, "Beyond the Disease: Seeking a Quality of Work Life for Cancer Survivors." Unum received nearly 400,000 new disability claims in 2007 and paid $4.3 billion in disability benefits to individuals and their families. The company’s disability database tracks 25 million covered individuals and an estimated 178,000 employer policies.

Cancer was responsible for more than 12 percent of Unum's long-term disability claims, but “the individual who is a cancer survivor does not want to be a hostage to the disease,” says Kenneth Mitchell, Unum’s vice president of health and productivity. “The employer can be the difference.”

The National Institutes of Health estimates that cancer cost more than $219 billion in 2007, including $89 billion in health care expenditures and $130 billion in lost productivity.

May is Disability Insurance Awareness Month, which presents an opportunity to highlight the increasingly important role benefits play in keeping employees and businesses strong, Mitchell says. "As the workforce ages, the prevalence of cancer grows, and treatments for cancer become more effective, employers will need to adapt their human resource, employer relations and benefit strategies—a shift that benefits both the employer and the employee," he notes.

“Survivorship rates have moved to levels that are more characteristic of a serious chronic disease than of a terminal illness,” Mitchell says. “There are clear patterns of factors leading to return-to-work success, including early identification, age in long-term disability cases and work site flexibility.”

Studies show increasing survival rates and success in returning to work after cancer-related disability, as well as a growing number of paid cancer claims. Between 2001 and 2005, Unum found an overall 16 percent increase in cancer claims, as well as:

• In cases of short-term cancer disability, a 77 percent overall increase in return-to-work rates.
• In cases of long-term cancer disability
, a 24 percent overall increase in return-to-work rates.

From Patients to Survivors

The number of cancer survivors in the United States has increased four-fold in the last 30 years, and the American Cancer Society predicts the prevalence of cancer will double by 2030, Mitchell said.

“The American Cancer Society recognizes the transition from cancer patient to cancer survivor as the next critical area of attention,” Mitchell says. “A cancer diagnosis no longer means death or permanent disability.”

Stephen Milleris manager of SHRM Online’s Compensation & Benefits Focus Area.

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