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UW Researcher: Cancer Diagnosis Can Lead to Significant Income Losses for Families

October 26, 2015

A new analysis by University of Wyoming researcher Anna Zajacova indicates that when American adults are diagnosed with cancer, they experience significant decreases in the probability of working, in the number of hours they work and, correspondingly, in their incomes.

Such negative impacts of a cancer diagnosis are particularly pronounced among working-age men, according to an article published early online in CANCER, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society. Zajacova, an associate professor in the UW Department of Sociology, says the study illustrates some of the financial challenges that accompany a cancer diagnosis and highlights the need for efforts to mitigate the economic hardships associated with the disease.

While studies have analyzed what happens economically to adults who are diagnosed with cancer, they have tended to be small, retrospective, subjective and not representative of large populations.

To address these shortcomings, Zajacova and her colleagues analyzed 1999-2009 data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a nationally representative, prospective, population-based observational study with individual and family-level economic information. The researchers used models to estimate the impact of cancer on employment, hours worked, individual income and total family income.

After a cancer diagnosis, the probability of a patient being employed dropped by almost 10 percentage points, and hours worked declined by up to 200 hours, or about five weeks of full-time work, in the first year. Annual labor market earnings dropped almost 40 percent within two years after a diagnosis, and they remained lower than before the diagnosis. Total family income declined by 20 percent, although it recovered within four years after the diagnosis.

These effects were primarily driven by losses among male survivors; for women who were diagnosed with cancer, the losses were largely not statistically significant.

“Fifteen million American adults are cancer survivors, and American families need economic support while they are dealing with the rigors of cancer treatment,” Zajacova says. “Our paper suggests that families, where an adult -- especially a working-age male -- is diagnosed with cancer, suffer short-term and long-term declines in their economic well-being. We need to improve workplace and insurance safety nets so families can focus on dealing with the cancer treatment rather than deal with the financial and employment fallout.”

CANCER is a peer-reviewed publication of the American Cancer Society integrating scientific information from worldwide sources for all oncologic specialties. It is published by Wiley and can be accessed online at

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