In Her Words: The Financial Fallout of Cancer

This first person story was shared by a credit counselor at Clearpoint Credit Counseling Solutions.

For over 15 years, I have provided guidance, education and comfort for clients suffering financially because of medical issues. I have shown them how to take control of their finances by finding sources of extra income. I encouraged them to understand that life is about how you pull together as a family when times are tough, not just when things are going well. I let them know that with careful planning, they can get through it. Little did I know that I was in for a dose of my own medicine.

I have been battling cancer for 10 years now. Never in a million years did I think that this could happen to me. I can’t be sick! I have three jobs, two kids, and a house to take care of. I have volunteer duties and church functions. I don’t have time to be sick. Nor did I have any money or sick leave. Who would take care of my kids? Who was going to pay my bills? Will I lose my house? How can I afford multiple co-pays?

Once I got past the shock and through the grieving process which often accompanies a major illness, I realized this is something everyone goes through at one time in their lives, be it personally or when coping with the illness of a child or parent. It is important to prepare financially when times are good so that we can be prepared for the times that aren’t.

Below are some steps I took to cut unnecessary costs and find additional income. I call this my “cancer survival” budget:

  1. End the denial, conquer the fear: Attitude means everything in a crisis. Think positively (that “glass is half full” mentality), clear your mind of the fear, breathe, be open to new ideas, sit down and look at what you are facing. I tell people that, in the end, you have to face your fear and review the numbers.
  2. Gather the numbers: I called my doctor’s office and we figured out the costs–my co-payments versus the number of visits, and what supplements I would have to purchase in addition to my regular medication (most are not covered by insurance). I also calculated what the cost of my prescriptions would be, as a lot of cancer drugs are not generic. I also figured out how much sick leave I had and estimated how long it would last. Fortunately, I work for a great company and my manager worked with me to “flex” my time so I was able to get the medical attention I needed without fear of losing my job. Employer support is critical, because the last thing you need to worry about is losing your job.
  3. Survive on a budget:Once I had the facts and figures, I went to the beach. Weird, maybe, but I am a firm believer of doing your budget outside of your home, because you are less distracted. I have been a single mom for 17 years, so I confess that I really didn’t think there were any corners left to cut, or there was anything I could live without; but when you are forced to focus on what is important, you can see more clearly. Monthly Savings:
    • Instead of having bottled water delivered, I bought a cooler and picked up the water myself (saved $40).
    • I cut my cable down to basic (saved $60).
    • I called my cell phone company and figured out I was not using all my minutes, so I went to a cheaper plan (saved $40).
    • I tracked my expenses and found $75 of unaccounted money. I made a list when I shopped (and ate before grocery shopping to reduce the risk of temptation).
    • I stopped magazine subscriptions, passed on even the occasional latte, and started using public transportation to cut down on my transportation costs (saved $100).

    Before I knew it, I had the money I needed to start treatment. The experience changed my habits for the long term.

  4. Ask for charity write-off: I had myself convinced that I would not qualify for help. I decided to fill out the paperwork just to see, and they cut my bill in half. Remember, the answer is always NO unless you ask.
  5. Support Group: Everyone needs help at one point or another, and reaching out to other people is the best healing power there is. Sometimes people are at their wits end and just need someone to listen and help them get back on track.
  6. Planning for the future: In the midst of my financial difficulty, I honestly wasn’t thinking of a plan for the future. Then, one day I realized that I was going to live and had little planned for retirement. 401(k) plans are a great way to save for the future, as most employers will contribute a match. Start small and increase the percentage you contribute over time.

Savings: I started by setting aside money for car repairs, clothing, and house repairs, which helped to re-build my savings. I began with small amounts, had the money transferred directly from my paycheck and into a savings account, and that way I hardly missed it.

Blessings: It’s a little Pollyanna, but instead of grieving what you are losing, be grateful for what you have.