Cancer and women's health: make sure your lifestyle and finances are protected


From female cancers - like breast, ovarian and cervical - to general cancers, these illnesses are amongst the most serious health issues women face. Why is it critical to make sure your lifestyle and finances are protected in the face of a life-changing illness?

World Ovarian Cancer Day (#WOCD), an initiative of the World Ovarian Cancer Coalition (WOCC), takes place on 8 May each year and aims to raise awareness about the silent killer amongst cancers that affect women.

Ovarian cancer is difficult to diagnose and has the lowest survival rate of all female cancers. It causes 150 000 deaths per year around the world and the WOCC predicts a 70% increase in the number of deaths by 2035.

In South Africa, one in 297 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) estimates that only 45% of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are likely to survive for more than five years. However, if ovarian cancer is found in its early stages the five-year survival rate is 90%.

Ovarian cancer: The best defence is a good offense

Linda Greeff, an oncology social worker and Chairperson of the Cancer Alliance of South Africa, is an ovarian cancer survivor. Greeff was diagnosed in 1997 during a routine gynaecological exam. Her doctors removed a tumour the size of an ostrich egg, but fortunately no radiation or chemotherapy was necessary.

Greeff believes early detection is the single most effective thing anyone can do when it comes to successful ovarian cancer intervention. As an oncology social worker, she aims to raise awareness about the typical signs and symptoms of this cancer and getting any worrisome symptoms checked by a gynaecologist early on.

"Ironically because of the stigma cancer carries, too many people avoid a check-up when they suspect something is wrong," she says. "There's often a sense of dread and fear of dying, which is understandable, so people avoid the possibility of having a diagnosis confirmed. The irony is that the sooner you have a diagnosis, the better you can plan your cancer treatment with your doctor. The moment your cancer diagnosis is made, see an oncologist. They’re the experts."

Know your ovarian cancer risk

All women are at risk when it comes to ovarian cancer. Risk factors include age, family history, ethnicity, genetic mutations, reproductive history, hormone replacement and other factors such as a history of a condition called endometriosis.

Dr Maritha van der Walt, Chief Medical Officer for Discovery Life, says: "If there is a history of breast or ovarian cancer, or both in the family, women should consult with their doctor or a genetic counsellor. Genetic testing is available for patients who are at an increased risk of getting breast or ovarian cancer owing to their family history. Genetic counselling should be offered before requesting such a test. Once the results are known, the options available to mitigate the risk, will be discussed with the patient."

Symptoms and warning signs

Dr Van der Walt advises women not to ignore the warning signs. "Ovarian cancer is usually diagnosed when the cancer is at an advanced stage. However, in retrospect symptoms were present for a long time," she says. These include:

  • Bloating or abdominal swelling
  • Urinary symptoms such as frequency and urgency
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Digestive problems (loss of appetite, gas, bloating, and feeling sated quickly).

"Frequent and sustained symptoms should be investigated by a gynaecologist," Dr Van der Walt emphasises. Breast cancer can be linked to ovarian cancer and women should also take note of the symptoms of this type of cancer.

"Signs of breast cancer are a lump or mass, change in nipple or nipple discharge, change in appearance of the skin, and any new asymmetry of the breasts," she adds, "Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge could be a sign of cervical or endometrial cancer, and should be investigated."

Screening and prevention

Dr Van der Walt's general lifestyle advice to prevent cancer includes

  • maintaining a healthy body mass index
  • doing regular exercise
  • not smoking
  • eating a healthy diet containing fibre, fresh fruits and vegetables and fish.
  • limiting alcohol as far as possible and, where consumed, to a maximum of one unit a day

Find out more about screening tests and processes for female cancers here.

Use Discovery Health's MyFamilyHistory tool to record your family health history and estimate whether  you have a higher-than-average risk of developing a female cancer or other conditions.

The importance of being financially prepared for a serious illness

Dr Van der Walt says that cancer is one of the leading causes of Discovery Life claims on life cover, severe illness and disability. “Cancer can strike at any age. We see many claims in the younger age groups as well as in older members,” she explains. And, even if you are young and healthy, an illness like cancer could have a severe financial impact on your life.

“Everyone should evaluate the need for life insurance because life is unpredictable,” she adds. “Factors to consider are outstanding debt and dependants. Ask yourself: what would happen to the financial needs of my dependants if I were to become ill or die unexpectedly? It is also worthwhile to look at the indirect costs that are linked to loss of income if you are unable to work for a period of time because of lengthy treatment, or if a stay-at-home mom or homemaker is ill, or dies, what would it cost to employ someone to fulfil all the duties of a homemaker?”

Dr Van der Walt says there are several Discovery Life products and benefits that are specifically designed to help cancer survivors and their families:

  • Severe Illness Benefit: This benefit pays a lump sum amount when cancer is diagnosed to help a person with any lifestyle adjustments that may be needed, any ongoing medical care that may not be covered by medical scheme benefits, as well as any loss of income. It offers extensive cover for cancer at various severity stages, as well as very early stage (in situ or original) cancers. The LifeTime option provides a minimum of 100% payment on all stages of cancer as well as a cancer relapse benefit where an additional amount is payable if the cancer relapses after being in remission for at least a year. Furthermore, Discovery’s Severe Illness Benefit also offers clients a chance to claim more than once for covered conditions, making it one of the most comprehensive cancer-cover products on the market. This is a unique feature of Discovery’s Severe Illness Benefit.
    Read more about Discovery Life’s Severe Illness Benefit.
  • Income continuation benefits are paid if a client is temporarily or permanently unable to perform her duties due to injury, illness or disability. Clients who are treated for cancer (through surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy) are often unable to work as they normally would, which could lead to a loss of income.
    Read more about Discovery Life’s Income continuation benefits here.
  • Capital disability benefits are paid if a client becomes disabled. Claims are assessed according to objective medical criteria, the ability to perform Activities of Daily Living (ADLs), loss of income and the ability to perform the nominated occupation.
    Read more about Discovery Life’s Capital disability benefits here.

“Other Discovery Life benefits designed specifically for cancer patients include early cancer benefits, cancer relapse benefits and female cancer benefits. “Suffering a severe illness could mean lifelong linked expenses. But with the right cover you could minimise the financial impact on you and your family. It is important to speak to a financial adviser who can assist with a proper needs analysis to plan for financial protection in case of any serious illness like cancer,” Dr Van der Walt says.

All medical information found in this article is for educational and informational purposes only. Discovery Health publishes this content to help empower cancer patients and their families by promoting a better understanding of cancer. The views expressed by all of the contributing healthcare providers are their independent, professional medical opinions and do not necessarily constitute the views of Discovery Health Pty (Ltd).

Discovery Life Limited. Registration number 1966/003901/06, is a registered long-term insurer, and an authorised financial services and registered credit provider, NCR Reg No. NCRCP3555. Product rules, terms and conditions apply.

Recommended for you by Discovery

Life insurance covers you in case of a range of life-changing events

Choose from a range of benefits with your Discovery Life Plan that cover you for disability and severe illness to ensure that you can focus on what’s important: getting well.

Put your health first with OncologyCare

If you're diagnosed with cancer and once the Discovery Health Medical Scheme has approved your cancer treatment, you are covered by our Oncology Programme. We do not limit your cancer treatment costs, and cover the first part of your approved cancer treatment over a 12-month cycle in full.

Members with cancer also have access to a comprehensive palliative care programme through the Advanced Illness Benefit. This programme offers unlimited cover for approved care at home.

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