When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009 I was running a successful wine and food public relations agency, eating at the top restaurants and visiting the world's great wine regions. Five years later, I came to a point where I considered applying for food stamps. My income was dried up and I was behind on my house payments. How did this happen to me?
I learned I was not alone and should not be ashamed. I decided to speak out and learn more. According to a University of Michigan study, 25 percent of breast cancer survivors reported financial decline during treatment. One in three breast cancer survivors end up unemployed after treatment. Twelve percent of survivors were still paying off medical debt four years after treatment. Women who underwent chemotherapy had a 27 percent higher job loss rate among more than 1,500 breast cancer survivors surveyed.
Medical debt is one factor. Health insurance deductibles and out of pocket costs not covered by insurance drain bank accounts. It is very important to understand the fine print with your health insurance provider to make sure you know how to submit correct paperwork. It is also important to work with your hospital or clinic to make sure your treatment options are covered. My hospital's financial services department required me to sign paperwork guaranteeing I would pay the cost of a specific drug ($4,000 per shot) if my health insurance did not cover the expense.
Many women cannot work or need to adjust their work schedule during and after treatment. Their spouse or partner may also need to take more time off from work to care for them. Their household income is impacted. I continued to work full time but not at full speed. A side effect called chemo brain impacted my memory and concentration despite all my best efforts to eat well, exercise daily and get enough sleep.
Some women simply cannot or do not want to go back to the lives they led B.C. (before cancer). After 20 years of running a successful public relations agency, I found going back to the same pace and type of work unfulfilling and stressful. I closed my business to pursue a writing career, train as a health coach and serve as an advocate for women's health.
Dealing with the financial fallout of breast cancer treatment is something women may be hesitant to address or discuss. Your first priorities are healing physically and emotionally and caring for your family. But the reality is many of us need to find help and make lifestyle adjustments to upgrade the quality of our lives to stay healthy while downsize our cost of living to manage financially. It is nothing to be ashamed of, and it is a sign of strength to face the situation and seek help.
The high cost of illness cannot be avoided, but there are precautionary measures you can take:
1. Research and get the best health insurance you can afford and make sure you fully understand all major medical, out of pocket, co-pays and in-network/out-of-network provisions. I provide a detail checklist for this in my book, Getting Things Off My Chest: A Survivor's Guide, because no one should have financial distress further impact their health.
2. Maintain a healthy lifestyle: Manage your weight, exercise daily, avoid smoking, drink alcohol in moderation, wear sunscreen, get regular medical checkups and necessary screenings for your age and family history and try to relax more and stress less. This means: Put your self-health first.
3. Put aside money every month in a savings account for that "rainy day" because when an illness strikes, the medical bills start pouring in.
4. If you are diagnosed with a major illness like breast cancer, consider contacting your credit card companies and bank to discuss raising your borrowing limits if you need more money and negotiating more manageable loan repayments if you need to conserve.
5. Contact your city and state's Department of Social Services to ask what programs or types of financial aid are offered by the state you live in. This includes Medicaid if you qualify financially.
Here are some other helpful resources if you have been diagnosed with breast cancer:
The Pink Fund distributes short-term financial aid for basic living expenses on behalf of breast cancer patients who have lost all or a part of their income during active treatment. Payments (capped at $3,000) are made directly to the patient's creditors. (877) 234 PINK (7465)
My Hope Chest is a social service organization focused on reconstructive surgery for uninsured or under insured women. (727) 488-0320
Living Beyond Breast Cancer provides very good resources for women living with breast cancer, including coping with finances. (888) 753-LBBC (5222)
CancerCare provides free professional and educational counseling and programs, practical help and financial assistance. (800) 813-HOPE (813-4673)
Cancer and Careers strives to eliminate fear and uncertainty for working people with cancer, providing essential tools and information for employees with cancer.
Meals To Heal helps patients and caregivers deal with the nutritional challenges of cancer with home delivery of fresh, nutritious meals designed for cancer patients. (888) 721-1041