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SA women under insured against breast cancer despite high rate of disease

25 October 2022 Old Mutual

One in 27 women are at risk of developing breast cancerin South Africa, according to the 2019 National Cancer Registry (NCR), and with the average 10-year survival rate for women with non-metastatic invasive breast cancer being 84%, very few women are prepared for the economic impact of cancer survivorship.

This is according to Dr Bielqees Salie, senior medical officer at Old Mutual, who says that many women may not realise the financial implications of being a cancer survivor.

Dr Salie notes that, according to data collected in 2019, almost 110,000 new cases of cancer were diagnosed in SA and more than 50,000 cancer related deaths, representing a quarter of premature non-communicable disease related mortality. In South Africa, according to the national cancer registry, only 16% of women who develop breast cancer will have it result in death.

She further highlights that when one considers the Old Mutual claims stats for 2021, cancer made up almost half of all the illness claims and constituted 60% of women’s illness claims. Yet only 7% of Old Mutual clients have severe illness cover.

“If we take into account that the global burden of cancer is expected to increase by 50% by the year 2030, and that most of that burden is experienced in lower- and middle-income countries, which includes SA, it is important that women prioritise health and make every effort to decrease their risk of cancer,” says Dr Salie.

She stresses that it is very important to note that all women are at risk and should, therefore, empower themselves with knowledge about their health and cancer risk.

“The first step is to purposefully take part in healthy behaviour and preventative strategies to decrease their risk. This can include quitting smoking, lowering rates of obesity, and lowering alcohol consumption,” she said. “When it comes to our bodies, we need to take those subtle changes and symptoms seriously and rather seek medical attention sooner rather than later.”

Apart from looking after one’s health, it is as important to plan for the financial impact of a positive cancer diagnosis.

“It is important to protect ourselves from the financial impacts of cancer and other illness by having the appropriate medical care as well as illness insurance, that can help you focus on your recovery should illness occur,” she said.

Dr Salie adds that there are also many out-of-pocket costs which is why an illness benefit helps.

“One of the side effects of chemotherapy is often hair loss, and wig prices can range up to R5000. Another area is food. Cancer patients may need to eat special foods or change their diet. Fuel and transportation costs to and from medical facilities also add up,” she said.

Other expenses could be mental health support from a therapist for both patient and family members and often general household expenses increase with patients spending more time at home or at a facility.

According to Dr Salie, globally, advancements in treatment in recent years has greatly improved survival rates and quality of life of people with breast cancer and it has become a highly treatable disease when diagnosed early.

“In South Africa, we have improved chemotherapy and hormone therapy available and surgical services have also improved. With early detection and more effective treatment, the life expectancy of people with breast cancer is increasing and so are the number of survivors,” she said.

Surviving cancer includes the physical, psychosocial, and economic issues of cancer, which goes beyond the diagnosis and treatment phases. This includes issues around access to health after being separated from the treatment team, late effects of treatment and possibly secondary cancers, quality of life, the expectation of the resumption of “normal life”, and bills,” Dr Salie concludes.

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