By Heather Millar
I remember clearly when I first realized that cancer too often translates into a financial meltdown: I was sitting in a New York University lobby, waiting for an MRI-guided biopsy. I picked up a copy of CURE, the cancer magazine. Immediately, I was struck by the advertisements: Ads offering people second mortgages to help with the costs of being sick. Ads that offered to help people cash in their life insurance policies before they died.
“Wow,” I thought at the time. “Cancer is a financial train wreck that’s happening around us all the time. I had no idea. When I was healthy, the problem was invisible.”
If the cancer doesn’t kill you, the medical bills might. People go bankrupt because of the cost of cancer treatment. Or, they forgo treatment they need because they can’t afford it.
Cancer did not leave my family’s bank account unscathed: I was too sick and addle-headed to work for more than a year. Because I’ve been self-employed for more than two decades, I did not qualify for disability or unemployment benefits. Our savings are locked in a 401K account, so we lived paycheck to paycheck. Our credit card balances crept up, and remain higher than we would like, battering our credit rating.
Still, I should count myself lucky: My husband has a good job and excellent health insurance. We were able to “go to ground,” and cut costs by creating an “in-law apartment” for ourselves in the rambling Edwardian house where I grew up.
Now, in this multi-generational household in which I live, I am watching the cancer money train wreck unfold all over again: Two sisters help to care for my bedridden mother. One of my mother’s caregivers has breast cancer. She had her third of six chemo infusions this week. She’s battling fatigue, skin rashes, numbness and tingling in her feet, headaches, and, of course, nausea.
Still, she showed up to help care for my mother the day before chemo. Why? She needs the money. She has health insurance, but it still leaves her responsible for thousands of dollars in medical co-pays. She is single; she has a son who graduated last year from University of California, but can’t find a job.
The cancer patient’s sister, my Mom’s other caregiver, has been working 24/7 for months so that the family can stay afloat. My mother, who has dementia, can be difficult. Actually, that’s an understatement. And the strain is beginning to show on the healthy sister: the endlessly blaring TV, my Mom’s involuntary cries for help, her cranky stubbornness about pill regimens and diaper changes.
I couldn’t do what this caregiver does for one day, much less for months on end. My husband and I have offered to spell her for a bit, but she has so far refused. Why? Her family needs the money.
My family wants to help, but my mother’s care already costs well into six figures each year. We can’t afford to pay the sick caregiver unless she, or someone, covers her shift.
For all the talk of “medical costs,” we talk too, too little about the personal financial toll that cancer takes. Premiums are rising; co-pays are rising. Incomes? Not so much.
In a story making the rounds last month, a six-year-old boy in Texas opened a lemonade stand to raise $10,000 for his Dad’s chemo. In 2010, a little girl in Colorado also opened a lemonade stand to help pay for her leukemia treatment.
And it’s not as if “Universal Healthcare” will necessarily save our children from selling drinks to pay for cancer treatment.
Even if the medical bills are paid, what about all the other costs that still add up when you’re sick? Your rent or mortgage? The parking at the hospital? Your food? The extra help you may need?
Last fall, a survey done in the UK, where they have a National Health Service, found that two-thirds of cancer patients still face financial stress because of the extra costs associated with being sick. One in six was forced to cut back on essentials, like food, because of medical costs. Nearly a third had spent some, or all, of their savings.
Here in the United States, 40 years after the National Cancer Act launched the War on Cancer, one of the biggest battles is figuring out how to afford being a cancer patient.
What is your experience? How do you afford cancer? Or not?