Helping ‘second lives’Cancer has become increasingly common in Korea. According to a government report in 2009, as many as 200,000 new patients are reported every year. When considering an average life expectancy of 81 years, the chance of getting cancer is 36 percent. Thanks to advancements in drugs and treatments, the rate of surviving more than five years after diagnosis has gone up to 62 percent. The cancers with the highest survival rates — thyroid (99.7 percent), breast (90.6 percent), colorectal (71.3 percent) and stomach (65.3 percent) — are now seen as chronic diseases rather than fatal ones.
A total of 808,503 people are still living after cancer diagnoses and treatments between 2000 and 2009. When including new patients from 2010, there must be more than a million battling the disease. Due to the progress in detecting and treating cancer, the number will likely go up. Cancer causes immeasurable physical pain as well as psychological, social and economic or deals. As it is no longer merely a health problem but a social welfare issue that can affect the well-being of the population, we need an entirely new policy paradigm on cancer.
Government policies on cancer focus mostly on early discovery through examination, as well as medical and surgical treatments. But cancer diagnosis is not just a medical problem. Family conflicts can often arise in the caring process. The patient must stop work, and the loss of income and medical costs can burden families.
With over one million cancer patients in our nation, we must think beyond the health aspects of the disease and work on ways to help people with their rehabilitation. A total care system ranging from health care to counseling is necessary. During treatment, therapists should be accessible to help patients and their families better fight the disease and cope with ordinary life after they leave the hospital.
According to the National Cancer Center, 53 percent of patients lose their jobs and just 30.5 percent return to work after treatment. The center says that if the return-to-work rate is pulled up to 60 percent, as in advanced societies, the returnees can bring benefits to the economy worth up to 1.8 trillion won a year. Japan plans to introduce a program to encourage cancer survivors to return to work.
Authorities must revise the law to include assistance in survivors’ return to work. The current health insurance policy mainly guarantees treatment and medicine. The government must legislate so that millions of cancer patients and their families can enjoy second lives.