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The most common severe illness amongst South African women is cancer – Discovery Life claims data

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The most common severe illness amongst South African women is cancer – Discovery Life claims data

Today Discovery Life revealed that, according to its latest claims data, cancer is the most common severe illness in South Africa for women.

Issued on International Women’s Day (8 March 2022), Discovery Life highlighted key issues surrounding women’s health, and what interventions can be made to ensure improved outcomes.

Second to cancer, the claims data found that nervous system and cardiovascular conditions are the next most concerning illnesses among South African women.

“During the last period of reporting for Discovery Life (2020) more than 54% of our severe illness claims from women were cancer claims,” says Dr Maritha van der Walt, Chief Medical Officer at Discovery Life. “Claims for conditions of the nervous system such a strokes and multiple sclerosis totalled around 15% of severe illness claims during the 2020 period. Heart conditions amounted to approximately 7% of our severe illness claims for women.”

“As many as 29% of disability claims made by women during 2020 were also as a result of cancer, followed by 19% due to nervous system conditions and 17% related to mental and behavioural conditions, underscoring the need for interventions and proactive care in these areas.”

“This is tragic because many of the risk factors of cancer and cardiovascular conditions in women are preventable or manageable. We need to be doing more to advocate for healthy behaviour, prevention and proactive screening,” adds Dr van der Walt.

Early detection of cancer is crucially important

“During 2020, we saw a variety of different life cover claims, but cancer remained the predominant cause of death among women too. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, followed by colon, lung, and ovarian cancer. During the last two years many people were not able to have their regular screenings, including regular mammograms, pap smears and other examinations.

“We would like to encourage everyone to prioritise this now, as early detection is the greatest factor in successfully treating and recovering from cancer,” says Dr van der Walt.

“Early stages of breast cancer, generally have a very good prognosis.” Dr van der Walt says breast cancer accounts for as much as 46% of female cancers.


The second largest cause of death to our female clients is cardiovascular conditions, comprising 18% of death claims. The third highest category of death claims for women is respiratory system conditions, followed by secondary infections which included those who died from COVID-19.

“Infections, including COVID-19, as the cause of death comprised about 3% of Discovery Life’s death claims for females in 2019. During 2020, this increased to 10%, attributable to COVID. Current evidence suggests that women are also at higher risk of suffering from long COVID. This drives home the importance of everyone getting vaccinated to avoid what are eminently preventable hospitalisations and deaths,” adds van der Walt.

“Infections were also the leading cause of Income Continuation Benefit (ICB) claims among women in 2020.”

Encouragingly, cancer-related death claims can be prevented

“Although cancer is still the leading cause of death, due to screening, medical technology and better treatment, mortality is on a downward trend and the percentage of death claims has decreased over the last few years of reporting. We can see that the proportion of female deaths resulting from cancer has declined significantly during the 2018 to 2020 period compared to the years between 2015 and 2017. This decrease amounts to 16% fewer cancer-related death claims.”

“The decline shows us that preventative measures save lives. Screening and early-detection are essential in this regard,” Dr van der Walt elaborates. “It is imperative for all women to consider comprehensive life insurance cover – not just for themselves, but for the kind of financial security that gives peace of mind for the whole family too. A relative or even a child could also fall ill at any stage. Having cover in place that helps to reduce the financial burden for women should they become ill, such as benefits that protect a child’s education costs, is also something to seriously consider.

“As a Discovery Life client, women of all ages can take advantage of Vitality health checks along with regular check-ups with their GPs, gynaecologists, and other specialists. Mammograms, pap smears, diabetes, and blood pressure checks, among others, are crucial screening options that can make such a difference in reducing disease severity and even death,” concludes Dr van der Walt.

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About Discovery

Discovery Limited is a South African-founded financial services organisation that operates in the healthcare, life assurance, short-term insurance, savings and investment and wellness markets. Since inception in 1992, Discovery has been guided by a clear core purpose – to make people healthier and to enhance and protect their lives. This has manifested in its globally recognised Vitality Shared-Value insurance model, active in 27 markets with over 20 million members. The model is exported and scaled through the Global Vitality Network, an alliance of some of the largest insurers across key markets including AIA (Asia), Ping An (China), Generali (Europe), Sumitomo (Japan), John Hancock (US), Manulife (Canada) and Vitality Life & Health (UK, wholly owned). Discovery trades on the Johannesburg Securities Exchange as DSY.

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