Peace of Mind

Ten steps to cope with the financial impact of cancer

piggy bank
Nancy Burke, a Cancer Center dietitian, said patients should let her know if they are having trouble paying for nutritional supplements. Many companies offer free cases or samples for those in need.

Nearly three-quarters of Americans say money is a significant source of stress, according to a recent American Psychological Association poll.

But you didn't need them to tell you that. When a cancer diagnosis slams into your pocketbook, financial jitters quickly mount. Having a firm sense of how to handle it can help you focus on yourself, your family and your well-being. We've assembled some tips to stretch a dollar.

1. Get organized.

Disorganization costs money: You buy things you forgot you had. You think a bill is wrong, but can't find receipts to double check. Life gets more complicated when medical bills enter the picture. Appoint a family member or close friend to monitor billing, deal with insurance companies and make sure you are taking advantage of benefits your employer offers. Ask your friend to help you keep good records to deal effectively with insurance companies. If you need help understanding a charge or you'd like copies of bills from the U-M Health System, Sue Thornton, the Cancer Center's financial counselor, can help. (Call 734-647-8663.)

2. Just Say Yes.

When people ask, "How can I help," they mean it. It often helps friends and family feel better to find ways to pitch in. It's OK right now to lean on people. Create a list of things that would be useful to you so you can have a response ready, said Sheila Morris, a Cancer Center child life specialist. Ideas may include casseroles, grocery shopping, and a ride to chemotherapy or help with fees for your children's after-school activities. If your employer allows it, co-workers may be willing to donate extra vacation days to your leave bank.

3. Make it easy for friends and family to contribute.

People think nothing of bringing gifts to birthday parties; so why not celebrate life with gifts when it matters most? Amazon.com offers a "wishlist" service that functions much like a gift registry -- and allows friends and family to help with the click of a mouse.

Select household goods, like paper towels and laundry detergent, or nutritional supplements, like Boost and multivitamins. Add them to your wishlist. Enter an address so items can be shipped directly to you or a friend who can organize the effort. Then send a link to the wishlist via e-mail with a brief explanation to friends and family. This won't pay your medical bills, but cases of nutritional drinks and household expenses add up fast.

4. Host a party; raise some cash.

After Trisha VanDerBos's daughter, Laura, was diagnosed with stage IV neuroblastoma, her family banded together to organize a golf outing. VanDerBos's brother and sister-in-law, Scott and Brandi Warner, got together with Brandi's brother and sister-in-law, Adam and Lisa Priest, to round up donations for raffle and door prizes. In the end, several hundred people attended, raising enough money for VanDerBos to feel comfortable about covering costs that insurance wouldn't pay as well as household and travel expenses.

"It's so hard to accept help. I've really struggled with it," VanDerBos said. "But the thing that really helped me to get over it is that people want to help in so many ways, but they don't know how. I'm very fortunate to have so much support. If I didn't have that support, I couldn't focus on what was most important now, which is taking care of Laura."

5. Demand better rates.

Unless you're a bargain hunter, you probably pay your monthly bills without a whole lot of comparison shopping. Review regular bills to make sure you're paying the lowest rates. Consider:

  • Can you get a better cell phone plan?
  • Do you belong to unions or other organizations that qualify you for discounts?
  • Can you get new quotes on car and homeowners' insurance?
  • Have the interest rates on your credit cards crept up? Try calling credit card companies to negotiate lower rates.
  • Talk to your utility companies. Do they have different payment options to equalize charges throughout the year so you don't get hit by high heating bills during winter months?
  • Could you pare back on cable or broadband services?
  • Should you refinance mortgages or student loans?

6. Get the kids involved in the conversation.

Help your children understand the new challenges your family is facing so that they aren't surprised if you need to cut back in ways that affect them. Get them involved in decision-making. Challenge them to help find ways to save: Perhaps you could rent a DVD and pop popcorn at home, rather than going out to the movies. This can be a good opportunity to help them learn to be responsible with money.

Also, do your kids really enjoy all the activities they're involved in? After-school commitments can be financially draining. If you need to cut back on them, ask your kids what's most important to them. Simplifying obligations often leads to less stress and more family time.

7. A balanced mind equals a balanced checkbook.

The more emotionally equipped you feel, the better you're able to handle financial stresses. If you're feeling depressed or anxious -- whether it's about money or other worries -- the Cancer Center offers a number of free programs to help cope. Consider counseling through the Psych-Oncology Program or a social worker. Patient & Family Support Services' Complementary Therapies program also offers several other options, including guided imagery, art therapy, music therapy and creative writing.

8. Balance finances with the urge to go organic.

Organic food is more expensive, but do you need to buy it? Joan Daniels, a Cancer Center dietitian, said that the most important goal is to try to eat more vegetables and fruits -- organic or not. If you would like to include some organic foods in your diet, but don't want to break the bank, choose foods that generally have the highest levels of pesticide residue when grown conventionally, including apples, bell peppers and potatoes. Whether you buy organic or not, be sure to wash food thoroughly before eating it.

While you're in treatment, getting enough protein is important, but that doesn't mean you need to buy steaks. Consider foods like peanut butter that will give you the best bang for your buck. Adding skim milk powder is an economical way to get more out of a glass of milk or a serving of mashed potatoes.

9. Don't be taken in by scams.

You won't find the cure for cancer on the Internet. Unfortunately, plenty of people are willing to exploit people with cancer to make a fast buck. If you are interested in exploring alternative therapies, before you invest in them, make sure their claims are supported by evidence-based research published in respected medical journals, like the New England Journal of Medicine. Contact the Cancer Center's Patient Education Resource Center at 734-647-8626 to help you make good choices.

10. Seek formal assistance.

If you're not able to make ends meet, you may be eligible for financial assistance provided by government or non-profit agencies. Cancer Center social worker Dawnielle Morano advises patients who may be out of work for six months or more to apply for Social Security Disability immediately.

Depending on your diagnosis and your need, some organizations -- such as the Patient Advocate Foundation or the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society -- may provide co-pay assistance or reimbursement for travel expenses, medications or procedures. Pharmaceutical companies also have assistance programs. For more information, contact Social Work at 800-888-9825. Those who travel by air to the University of Michigan for cancer treatment may qualify for free flights through the Corporate Angel Network.

 

See Also: Squaring up with the IRS - Jim Palazzolo, of Arbor Accountancy, in Ann Arbor, provides information on medical expense deductions.

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Thrive Issue: 
Winter, 2008