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Cancer, Debt and the Holidays

Even living in a country with socialized medicine, cancer debt is an unfortunate side effect of treatment, making holiday shopping a challenge
PUBLISHED November 27, 2018
A native New Yorker, Shira Kallus Zwebner is a communications consultant and writer living with her husband and three children in Jerusalem, Israel. Diagnosed in 2017 with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, she's fighting her cancer battle and blogging about the journey at hipstermomblog.com

Black Friday Sales this year came and went, and all I did to commemorate the biggest shopping event of the season was delete the masses of emails out of my inbox. Children’s Place and Target, Wayfair and TrueSelf Organics, sent their enticing messages to my inbox while my Facebook feed showed a steady stream of sales and specials at some of my favorite shops. No matter how many times I clicked to hide ads, a new sale from another store would pop up in its place. Even here in Israel, you can’t avoid Black Friday, as local merchants trying to peddle their wares adopted the biggest American commercial event to sell Hanukkah presents.

Lately, I just close off my radio and drive in silence.

When I started on my cancer journey a year ago, I was confident that living in a country with socialized medicine would mean not falling into cancer debt. That was pretty naïve thinking – or perhaps it was wishful thinking – that I would be able to do what seemingly no other cancer patient has managed to accomplish throughout difficult treatment: Keep up with my bills.

While thankfully my national health care provider covered the bulk of my treatment, and I did get a one-time payment from my private insurance policy, cancer really took a big bite out of our savings. I had to cut back on my work hours, and while part-time pay was better than no pay at all, it moved us pretty quickly into the red.

Recently, we looked back at the bills we are still paying off to try to figure out where we incurred these extra expenses. Eight months of weekly parking fees at Shaare Tzedek Medical Center added up, even though the hospital provided us with a free disabled parking card. The problem was that all those spots were always occupied, even when I showed up for an MRI at 4:30 a.m. one morning, so we inevitably had to pay for parking.

Alternative medicine acupuncture appointments, while so helpful to combat the side effects of R-CHOP treatment, were weekly out of pocket costs. So was my new cancer therapist, who gave me a lifeline every week during treatment, but was another expense not covered by my health care provider. While all these extra costs kept piling up, our day-to-day expenses really stayed the same. Our community donated dinners every other day and that was a tremendous help, but shockingly we didn’t see a big difference in our grocery bills. Our family of five still had our every day life expenses, from mortgage bills and car loans, to the usual gas, water and electric bills.

Sure, we indulged a little more than I normally would during cancer treatment. I’ll admit that buying my six year old an American Girl doll for Hanukkah last year was probably not the wisest investment given the year of treatment to come, but I thought I was about to spend my last holiday on earth with my husband and children so I put aside my normal conservative money spending habits and decided to spoil them rotten!

Which leads us to a new holiday season, the first one after cancer treatment, where I’m blessedly cancer free. This year, there won’t be eight nights of gifts like we did last year. Instead of giving my children gifts they can unwrap next to the glow of the Hanukkah candles, we’re going to give them the gift of time. This year, my husband and I both took some of the holiday off from work, and we’re planning to spend the holidays together as a family, making memories that will hopefully last a lifetime.
 

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