The income umbrella (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Are Unum (NYSE:UNM) analysts finding falling long-term disability (LTD) return-to-work rates for women with breast cancer because of random fluctuations in data, changes in the severity of the challenges facing LTD claimants who are fighting breast cancer, or resistance from employers?

Breast cancer is in the news this month because nonprofit groups have worked to make October  National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Unum has contributed to discussions about the impact of breast cancer by looking at its own breast-cancer claims data.

In some cases, breast cancer can affect men as well as women. About 1 percent of the U.S. residents who develop cancer in a typical year are men, according to the National Cancer Institute. But about 99 percent of the people who get breast cancer are women.

The Unum analysts have found that cancer accounts for about 15 percent of the company’s LTD claims and that breast cancer accounts for about 22 percent of the LTD cancer claims.

When the Unum analysts sifted their short-term disability (STD) claims data, they found that the share who return to work increased to 64 percent in 2009, from about 29 percent in 2001.

Cheryl Greaney, a vice president, has suggested that the increase may be due to improvements in treatment outcomes and successful efforts to detect breast cancer early.

The widespread use of screening programs may also be leading to a shift of the mix of patients filing breast cancer-related STD claims. Maybe some of those claimants have relatively mild forms of cancer.

But the Unum analysts found that the percent of LTD claimants with breast cancer who returned to work peaked at about 55 percent in 2006. The share who returned to work started at 47 percent in 2001 and dropped down to 50 percent in 2009.

One possible reason may be that the workers with breast cancer who stay on claim long enough to need LTD benefits may have later-stage or more-difficult-to-treat forms of cancer, Greaney said.

One wonders if another reason could be some employers’ reluctance to take back workers with high medical costs during tough times.

Internet message boards are full of anecdotal stories from people with breast cancer who talk about how supportive their employers have been, but others are from people with breast cancer who talk about how they found that, once their diagnoses were known, employers quickly found reasons to dismiss them.

In theory, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) could give employers more comfort with keeping their sick employees (at least: all employees that they continue to employ after PPACA takes effect who happen to become sick) on the payroll.

But, whatever happens with PPACA, it seems as if health insurers and disability insurers have a commercial interest in figuring out how to keep insurance plans from interfering with the ability of workers with breast cancer who can work and want to keep working from working.

Especially in an age of voluntary benefits products and benefits exchanges, it seems as if employers and insurers would want to appeal to the kinds of workers who want to keep working through adversity, not the kinds who would be happy to use a serious illness as an excuse to lie on the sofa watching TV all day.

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