6 Ways Millennials Can Prepare for the Unthinkable: Cancer

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This year, about 70,000 young adults will be diagnosed with cancer in the United States; it's the leading cause of disease-related death of those 15 to 39. That's the bad news. Many of them will become survivors. That's good news. Most of those survivors will risk ending up on economic margins. That's bad news. Especially to a generation widely expected to be the first in more than a century to do worse than their parents financially.

Fortunately, young adults are showing themselves to be a pretty savvy group when it comes to trying to dodge cancer. Smoking is down. Sunscreen use is up. They're exercising more. And those are great stats and the result of year of hammering by public health officials. Message received.

What young adults are not being hammered with are messages about how to prepare for the financial hit of cancer. According to Samantha Watson, the chief executive officer and founder of The Samfund, a non-profit dedicated to programs and services tailored specifically for young adult cancer survivors, not only are millennials with cancer usually unaware of the financial snake pit they are entering, millennials without cancer are generally at a loss as to how to begin to offer support.

"What seems like an unimaginable event -- getting diagnosed with cancer as a young person -- actually happens 10 times an hour, every hour, all year in this country," said Watson. "Getting that kind of news, whether it's hitting you or a friend, should be something we all prepare for. The odds are higher than we think that someone we know will be diagnosed with cancer, and the consequences are more wide-ranging than most can fathom."

Research recently published by Watson and her group found that those who received assistance from The Samfund had a negative net worth: about $35,000 in the hole, on average. (Their peers, according to the U.S. Census, usually have a net worth of nearly $70,000.)

Watson believes there are three key ways that young adults can get ready for the tsunami of cancer (and, if that tsunami hits close to home, three ways to help):

Get Ready Tip #1: Cancer isn't free. Even those who are insured quickly find a tangle of immediate and long-term costs, from deductibles and cost-sharing to the impact of lost wages. Watson said young adults should understand their health payment options as well as they understand their student loans or their lease. A good place to start? The Samfund's Financial Toolkit.

Help Out Tip #1: Be present. There's no great guidebook for being the perfect friend (though the Ring Theory is a good start), but no one going through cancer wants to see friends disappear because they don't know the right thing to say. Continue to include your pal in your social plans; don't assume that they won't want to come. However, let them know that there is no pressure on them to attend. Also, skip the expensive outings and take a walk, stream some Netflix, or have a picnic.

Get Ready Tip #2: It's OK to ask for help. Or, at the least, it's OK to acknowledge the unexpected pains and costs of cancer therapy. The 20s and 30s are, paradoxically, a time when young adults are working on becoming independent (socially, financially, etc.), but learning when to set independence aside and call in favors is a critical skill. Start practicing it now.

Help Out Tip #2: Provide support -- think simple, such as potluck dinners with the gang -- even after treatment ends, because the cost of cancer drags out long after treatment. Don't assume that once a doctor gives the all-clear to a friend, the financial saga is over.

Get Ready Tip #3: Be ready to crowdfund. This goes along with the "asking for help" point, but one of the survival skills that young adults need to be aware of is the availability of online resources that make asking for money or resources dead simple. Watson used an early crowdfunding site to make ends meet during her two bouts with cancer, and she's written a guide to today's options that's well worth a read for any adult who wants to be prepared. Just keep in mind that these sites are public (see "Help Out Tip #3), so you'll need to be comfortable with your cancer diagnosis being out there.

Help Out Tip #3: Make it go viral. Millennials aren't the richest generation, but they may be the most networked. Not every friend is going to be able to help out with every crowdfund request, but the further those requests go, the more likely it is that potential donors will step up. Sharing is caring. Retweets are endorsements.

Watson also offers a final suggestion: getting involved with her group. The Samfund has given $1.5 million in direct grants over the past decade, and like all nonprofits, is always in need of supporters, volunteers, and content experts.

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