5 Tips for Managing Financial Stress During Cancer

Nancy Novack, PhD, is the founder and executive director of Nancy’s List, a nonprofit foundation serving the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs of people living with cancer and those who love and care for them. Dr. Novack is a clinical psychologist and was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer in 2004.

For many people with cancer, the costs related to their care can be very distressing. It can take creativity, persistence, and awareness to manage financial stress and difficulties during cancer. But all of us who have been “through the fire” when we receive a cancer diagnosis acquire special skills. We learn how to “mine adversity,” sharpen our perceptions, be open to possibilities, confront reality, and never give up. Financial stress is just an “add-on,” and we can learn how to address it by learning how to navigate the system.

The good news is, there are many foundations, corporations, nonprofits, and just ordinary great people who are committed to making the cancer experience more affordable and stress-free for people with cancer. Below are some helpful tips for coping with financial stress during cancer and resources to help you manage financial concerns.

1: When you get your cancer diagnosis, remember to breathe—and keep breathing.

When you are first diagnosed, there is often a lot of information to digest and many feelings, such as anxiety, fear, or confusion. When my experience felt overwhelming, I found it was helpful to be as still as I could be and just breathe. It helped me take in the information in a shorter amount of time. If you are beginning to feel overwhelmed, remember to keep breathing. As you continue to make your way through your cancer experience, don’t forget about breathing those big, long breaths. They can help soothe your soul. 

2: Tell your doctor immediately if you are concerned about financial issues.

If you are concerned about finances, your treatment facility may have a financial counselor who can help. Always tell your doctor if you aren’t taking your medications because you can’t afford them. Your doctor may be able to prescribe you generic medications rather than more costly ones, and they can offer you information about prescription assistance programs where you may be able to get your medications for free.

Needy Meds and the Patient Advocate Foundation are both groups I recommend for help with medications. I just helped a woman who had received a huge, questionable medical bill that was causing her great distress because she couldn’t resolve the problem. I had her call the Patient Advocate Foundation, and they were able to start working with her on a solution. 

3: When your friends and family offer their help, don’t be afraid to say “yes.”

If friends or family members, especially those who have a little financial savvy and a big dose of commitment to helping, offer their help, say “yes.” They can help you with doing paperwork, analyzing and paying your bills, checking out your insurance, gathering information about payment plans, putting in a claim for disability, and doing some of the other “dirty work” for you.

At the same time, find out who the financial counselor and social worker are at your treatment center and make appointments with them. If possible, bring along your “designated friend” who is helping with your financial responsibilities, and ask lots of questions. 

You can also ask friends and family to check out Nancy’s List and Triage Cancer for help. These websites have lists of many financial resources, both locally and nationally, that are available to you and those who love and care for you. There are many resources available for people with certain types of cancer, such as breast cancer or colorectal cancer; resources for people within minority populations, such as Latinos or LGBTQ+ people; and resources for specific age groups, such as children or young adults

4: Reach out to organizations for help with cancer-related costs.

There are organizations, both private and government entities, that can support you with food expenses, dental care, general living expenses, legal resources, co-pays and other medical expenses, vision and hearing care, transportation, travel expenses, lodging, and more. I am especially grateful for the many people who commit to enhancing the quality of our lives during cancer through camps for kids, teens, young adults, and their families, as well as those who sponsor retreats, adventures, and vacations for people with cancer.

I am also impressed that significant scholarship money is available to teens who have had cancer or have a parent with cancer. And, of course, there are many wish fulfillment organizations for both children and adults. One of my favorite organizations is Cleaning for a Reason. They will clean your home for free once a month for 4 months while you are in cancer treatment.

These groups want to help people who are living with cancer get the best outcome, physically as well as emotionally. It is in that spirit that they offer their hands, hearts, and personal experiences to provide hope to a person with cancer. 

In the time of COVID, money might be especially tight, and this stress can dominate the healing process. I researched and compiled a list of cancer foundations and support organizations that want to help. I am impressed by the determination of so many fine people to be helpful to those living with cancer. The list is very extensive and very fluid, as the situation with the COVID-19 pandemic is always changing.

5: Know you can negotiate your bills with providers and hospitals.  

You have the ability to negotiate a bill with your providers or health care facility. For example, one of my clients came to me, very distressed, holding a huge bill from a hospital in San Francisco where she had received a cancer-related procedure. This young woman was a college student without insurance or funds. I suggested she go to the finance director at the hospital and simply say, “I cannot pay this bill. I am willing to pay you $5 a month for the rest of my life to handle this responsibility.” Both of us were surprised when the director smiled and said, “That’s a deal.”

Here’s a personal experience from when I was in active cancer treatment. I had a fancy health insurance plan, but it did not cover many of my treatments. I received statements in the tens of thousands of dollars. After some time, I finally found out that there was a financial assistance program at my hospital, and I negotiated the bills very successfully. You can, too. Don’t forget that negotiating is an option when medical bills arrive.

The author has no relationships relevant to this content to disclose.

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