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The Financial Pressure of Cancer Takes an Emotional Toll

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Wendy Baer, MD - Blogs
By Wendy Baer, MDPsychiatric oncologistJuly 15, 2019

Receiving a cancer diagnosis, and going through treatment, is emotionally difficult. Not only are you worried about whether the treatment will work (and how the side effects will impact you), you also have to deal with the high financial cost of cancer care, even when treatment is covered by insurance. Health care in the United States is expensive, and to make matters worse, being out of work for surgery, chemo, and radiation reduces income, causing more stress. Below are examples of comments from patients that demonstrate how emotionally difficult dealing with cancer and money can be.

I lay awake at night with swirling thoughts about all the bills that need to be paid, wondering how I might ever possibly pay them all.  (Insomnia from money anxiety)

I have to go to work - I'm a single parent so I can't afford to not work - but I am so tired I can barely keep my eyes open. (Cancer fatigue from money anxiety)

My immune therapy cost thousands of dollars a month. I feel so guilty for getting this medicine when other people don’t even have insurance. I wonder if my life is worth all this. (Depression from money guilt)

Cancer centers cause a lot of stress by charging for parking. I already have car and gas payments, but then parking too! I come here so often, it really adds up. Plus my son needs the car for work. I hate having to choose between my cancer treatment and his work. (Relationship stress from money needed for transportation)

Dealing with the emotional toll of cancer-related financial stress is a tremendous challenge. Ideally the cost of care would be less, everyone would have comprehensive insurance, and there would be nonprofits to provide transportation and cover copays. Until that time, the goal is to manage the financial stress of cancer in the way you might manage other major life stress: Accept the situation, check out resources, prioritize, and plan.

  • Accept that you have a medical problem to treat, and you are going to take care of yourself the best you can, which means a financial investment. You are worth spending money on. Remind yourself that if you don’t take care of your health, you won’t be able to work (or enjoy life) at all.
  • Check to make sure that your medical care is based on scientific evidence and that you are not wasting money on treatment that has not been proven to be helpful. Don’t waste money on supplements, infusions, or interventions that have not been supported by good quality science. Cancer centers with NCI or NCCN designations, or affiliation with a university, or reports on patient outcomes for treating your kind of cancer are likely to practice evidence-based medicine.
  • Check out financial support options with the social worker at your cancer center and with pharmaceutical companies and organizations that focus on your specific kind of cancer. Consider clinical trials where treatment may be covered by research grants.
  • Prioritize your spending, which starts with a written budget. Figure out what is a need versus a want, then reduce the wants as possible.
  • Check prices for medications at different pharmacies, or free medicines from the pharmaceutical company. Goodrx.com is a helpful website.
  • Plan for part-time work when you are medically ready, especially if you have been out for a while. Returning to work is like returning to running or playing a sport if you have been out for a while – you need time to get back into shape.
  • Plan time for daydreaming. Cancer is a major life interruption. This may be a good time to think about what work would be most meaningful to you in the future.

Financial pressures are truly very difficult. But putting a budget on paper, being thoughtful about what is really needed, collaborating with family, friends and the cancer support system can help you get through treatment and keep the emotional toll of cancer and money as low as possible.

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About the Author
Wendy Baer, MD

Wendy Baer, MD, is the medical director of psychiatric oncology at the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University in Atlanta. Dr. Baer helps patients and their families deal with the stress of receiving a cancer diagnosis and going through treatment. Her expertise in treating clinical depression and anxiety helps people manage emotions, behaviors and relationships during difficult times.

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