Our Thoughts

Cancer Woke Me Up: A Personal Story (and How to Handle Finances in a Health Crisis)

By: S. Alexis Grason 

Cancer woke me up. 

Ever have a moment in time that changes the trajectory of your life, or at least your perspective? Here’s mine: 

My daughter was less than two years old. My dad had died six months earlier at age 72 on Valentine’s Day. Now I was getting a manicure and savoring those all-too-rare moments of intentional self-care. My husband called, and I ignored the vibrations. I was treating myself, and he knew that! But when he called again, I answered. 

He was en route to a specialist to check out a tumor that his doctor did NOT think was benign. As soon as I heard the c-word, it felt as if my life completely changed pace. Suddenly, I was in a dream-like state. 

It wasn’t that the world stopped, but rather, it started moving slower. I observed every decision, the potential next steps, and swirling emotions with a new level of intensity and clarity. I did not feel like a participant. I was watching life unfold like a spectator, just trying to breathe. I vowed to orchestrate each move with precision in hopes of making the “right” decision. 

Long story short, we are ok. After emergency surgery and many follow-ups, he is ok. We continue down the active surveillance path that cancer survivors know so well. And we are far from alone in our experience. A study published in the Bulletin of the American College of Surgeons (ACS) notes that about 5% of the U.S. population—15.5 million people—are cancer survivors. 

It may be a different type of cancer or illness for you. Whatever the case, we’ve all had to ask tough questions. And many of them involve money.  

How to Tackle ‘Financial Toxicity’

healthcare costThe ACS study notes that cancer is the second most expensive disease in the United States, with healthcare costs burgeoning from $124 billion in 2010 to an estimated $157 billion in 2020. 

The same advancements in cancer diagnostics and treatment that have improved outcomes also substantially drive up costs. In 2000, for example, the average annual cost of cancer drugs ranged from $5,000-$10,000. By 2020, the new targeted therapies and biologic agents may cost upwards of $100,000. As prices rise, insurance companies shift more costs to patients. 

The result is “financial toxicity,” described in the study as increased mental, physical, and emotional distress in patients and caregivers due to the burden of healthcare costs. Read on for some strategies to keep the toxicity at bay while you heal. 

Work Your Current Resources to Your Greatest Advantage: Ask Questions! 

  1. Designate a listener. Getting the most for your money from cancer care requires the energy and focus of asking and processing lots of crucial questions. The American Cancer Society suggests calling on a trusted friend or relative to help you track costs and go with you to medical visits or any meetings where you discuss money matters. 
  2. Learn as much as you can about your cancer and cancer treatment before it starts. Each person has a different experience. When you know what to expect during yours, you can better cope with costs and line up the support you need. 
  3. Ask those questions. The Cancer Support Community offers “Tips for Managing Costs of Care,” a free publication with extensive lists of questions to get you the information you need, from treatment choices to insurance coverage to the possibility for work during recovery and the resources available if that is not possible. The organization also offers an online information guide at www.CancerSupportCommunity.org/costs.

Anticipate Uncertainty and Plan for It 

The ideal approach, of course, is to put a financial strategy in place ahead of time to cope with medical crises. The general recommendations for emergency planning apply, but there are also specific steps for medical circumstances: 

  1. Carefully review health, disability, long-term care, and life insurance policies. A thorough understanding of details such as coverage, deductibles, co-pay requirements, and waiting periods can help you determine how much you need in savings for medical emergencies (see #3 above). Some life insurance policies, for example, begin to pay out benefits during a severe illness. 
  2. Create financial and health directives. Choose a trusted relative or friend to make decisions on your behalf. It can keep your finances in order and help ease your mind to focus on healing.
  3. Review your investment and savings strategies to be prepared. It may make sense during an extended illness to shift some assets to lower-risk and/or income-producing investments. And if your emergency savings are not as robust and you would like them to be, consider cutting back on discretionary spending or shifting your investment focus until you are comfortable with your stash.

The internal struggle during an unexpected crisis creates tension and pause. Sometimes you freeze, and sometimes you seize the chance to change. These chapter breaks in our lives present opportunities—planned or unplanned—to regain control and clarity. 

Financial planning gives you choices and flexibility. It is crucial to organize your financial house and regularly perform a financial check-up to adjust to life’s circumstances. FJY stands ready to partner with your family for your future. If you are interested in what it looks like to work with a professional, read more for the first year expectations.