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Cancer patient in a work meeting

Colorado School of Public Health Launches Innovative Program to Support Working Cancer Patients

New Partnership with University of Colorado Hospital, the University of Colorado Cancer Center, and the Colorado School of Public Health will help Remove Barriers and Support Cancer Patients in Pursuit of Work and Well-Being

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The Center of Health Work and Environment (CHWE) at the Colorado School of Public Health (ColoradoSPH) proudly announces the launch of WeCanWork (Well-Being and Cancer at Work), an innovative program designed to provide comprehensive support to cancer patients as they balance work responsibilities and treatment.

With 18 million cancer survivors in the United States, half of whom are of working age, there is a significant need for support to help them stay in the workforce during their treatment. Many cancer survivors face higher absenteeism and struggle with well-being when their physical abilities cannot align with job demands. Moreover, many oncology practices are not fully equipped to support these patients in overcoming these challenges.

WeCanWork bridges this gap by fostering collaboration between public health and oncology professionals at the University of Colorado Cancer Center, UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, and occupational medicine practices. The program leverages the principles of Total Worker Health® to address multiple factors across the dimensions of well-being, addressing the work-related needs of cancer survivors to improve overall patient outcomes.

Integrating Total Worker Health into Oncology Practices

The WeCanWork program combines Total Worker Health research and practice, focusing on long-term assessment of a cancer patient’s diagnosis on their employment, financial, and overall well-being. It also engages and trains oncology care teams on occupational health practices, equipping the UCHealth oncology and University of Colorado Cancer Center teams with the tools they need to refer patients to specialized consultation.

Patients referred to the WeCanWork program can see an occupational medicine physician at no out-of-pocket cost. The program simplifies the referral process for oncology practices, allowing them to efficiently send their patients for an occupational medicine consultation. During these consultations, patients receive recommendations on work accommodations, support with completing forms for disability and paid sick leave, and guidance on discussing their diagnosis and accommodations with their employer to manage work responsibilities while in treatment.

The goal is to improve cancer survivors’ access to experts who regularly assess their need for work accommodations and determine if they can continue working during periods of illness and disability. Initially focusing on Gastrointestinal (GI) Oncology, the program plans to expand to support all UCHealth cancer patients.

Dr. Wells Messersmith, Chief Medical Officer of Oncology Services at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, emphasized the importance of launching this program: “The physical and emotional challenges that cancer causes are only exacerbated when patients are unable to work, and financial stress on cancer patients has been associated with worse survival rates. Furthermore, cancer often strikes people at the prime of their careers when they are contributing the most to their communities and society as a whole. This WeCanWork project has the potential to greatly improve the situation by tapping into the expertise of occupational health experts to help cancer patients who want to keep working and supporting their families. We are excited to partner with the Colorado School of Public Health on this important initiative.”

Economic Well-Being and Financial Security as Matters of Public Health

The project launched with new research three years ago directed by ColoradoSPH Dean and Deputy Director of the CU Cancer Center, Dr. Cathy Bradley. With over twenty years of cancer research experience, Dr. Bradley has demonstrated the stark challenges associated with cancer diagnosis and the economic and financial security of patients. This experience has motivated the creation of sustainable support for working cancer patients.

“The Colorado School of Public Health is uniquely positioned to launch collaborative programs like WeCanWork,” said Dr. Bradley. “Because public health sits at the nexus of health care systems, human behavior, economic forces, and more, we can bring together these and other stakeholders to ensure the whole patient is supported and better positioned for economic stability throughout their care on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus.”

Dr. Bradley’s work is complemented by the extensive occupational and public health experience of Dr. Lee Newman and Dr. Liliana Tenney of CHWE at ColoradoSPH. Dr. Tenney, who leads the intervention arm of WeCanWork and directs outreach and programs at CHWE, explained: “This program will be the first to connect occupational medicine physicians directly with cancer patients. We have engaged oncology care teams at UCHealth over the past two years to learn how to best support both patients and providers in the continuum of care. Patients will have access to specialists who assess work-related care and provide guidance on topics including return-to-work accommodations, employment-related forms, diagnosis and accommodations with employers, and balancing work demands with treatment.”

By integrating oncology care with occupational health, the WeCanWork initiative is poised to significantly improve the support system for working cancer survivors. This innovative program addresses the gap in patient support within oncology practices and empowers patients to maintain their professional livelihoods while managing their health.

As WeCanWork expands its services, it aims to set a new standard in holistic cancer care and ultimately enhance the quality of life for all cancer patients at UCHealth. The project is funded by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) under a cooperative agreement. (Newman, Tenney: “Center for Health, Work & Environment Total Worker Health Center of Excellence” U19 OH11227)