A diagnosis of cancer can be emotionally devastating, but the personal trauma seldom ends there. The overall cost of treatment can be equally catastrophic to a patient’s bank account, especially if that person lacks adequate health insurance, analysts report. It’s not surprising, then, that care-related money issues are frequently cited as the primary cause of personal bankruptcy among families ravaged by cancer.
However, these families don’t have to struggle alone, thanks to organizations that provide free or discounted services and goods to patients battling the disease and struggling to make ends meet.
Total spending for cancer care in the United States was estimated at around $125 billion in 2010 and is projected to increase between 27 and 39 percent by 2020, reported Milliman, an independent actuarial and consulting firm, in a 2017 analysis of care costs specific to breast, lung and colorectal cancers.
When cancer strikes, the financial impact can be immediate. The study, commissioned by Pfizer, tracked the total cost of diagnosis and treatment over a five-year period, including the patient’s out-of-pocket portion, for roughly 35,000 commercially insured people with lung, breast or colorectal cancer. The results revealed that the average health care spending per patient increased from less than $2,000 in the month preceding diagnosis to as high as $25,000 in the month of diagnosis. The patient’s out-of-pocket responsibility similarly spiked dramatically, averaging $1,800 to $2,900 in the month of diagnosis alone.
The cumulative costs can be staggering. According to the Milliman report, total health care spending four years after diagnosis averaged $101,000 for breast cancer, $165,000 for colorectal cancer and $281,000 for lung cancer. The patient’s average out-of-pocket responsibility for that same time period totaled $7,531 for breast cancer, $8,442 for colorectal cancer and $11,180 for lung cancer. That does not include other major costs, such as insurance premiums and expenses associated with transportation, time off work and child care.
“Most of the time these costs are not covered by insurance, so it can be a downward spiral for many,” says Steven Hansen, managing director of Cancer Horizons, an organization that has one of the largest online directories of free products and services for patients with cancer nationwide. “I hear stories every day. People are trying to get better, but they’re also trying to deal with these fundamental lifestyle, cost-of-living-type issues.”
The patients tracked for the report had the benefit of employer-sponsored insurance, which negotiates a lower rate for the medical care provided, and then pays the lion’s share of treatment expenses. Even so, the added expenses associated with diagnosis and ongoing treatment, along with related costs for travel and lost wages, can be financially overwhelming. For those who lack insurance, are self-insured or need access to hospitals or treatments not covered by their insurance, the costs can be dramatically higher. Facing financial hardship can be demoralizing, but help is available, ranging from transportation to and from treatment to legal assistance to scarves and wigs for those who lose their hair due to chemotherapy.
Most assistance organizations require applicants to fill out online request forms. The amount of personal information asked for ranges broadly, but almost all require some proof that the applicant has cancer and is genuinely in need. Sometimes this may come via a Facebook page, but others require a letter from a physician.
People should not be deterred by the paperwork and take advantage of the goods and services available to patients and their caregivers, says Nancy Novack, founder and executive director of Nancy’s List, a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting patients in need. “Such programs go a long way toward eliminating stress,” she says. “Participation increases the number of people who are on your side and gives you hope.”
Novack and Hansen both established their charitable organizations following a personal experience with cancer. For Novack, it was a successful fight against stage 4 ovarian cancer; for Hansen, it was months of caring for his father after a diagnosis of colon cancer. Both say after realizing the challenges faced by patients with cancer, they decided to fill an obvious need. “This is an extremely underserved market,” Hansen says. “Our sole mission is to provide com-passionate resources for patients with cancer. Everything is driven by the patients.”
Aside from the emotional and financial toll, cancer brings physical side effects, too — hair loss during chemotherapy; brittle nails; rough, flaky or discolored skin; sores and scars. Look Good Feel Better offers complimentary group, individual and online sessions that include lessons on skin care and cosmetics, nail care, wigs and turbans, accessories and styling to help men and women with cancer regain their self-esteem. To learn more, call the 24-hour hotline at 800-395-5665 or visit lookgoodfeelbetter.org. For men’s services, visit lookgoodfeelbetter.org/programs/men.
CAMPS AND ADVENTURE PROGRAMS
Having cancer doesn’t have to mean the end of having fun. Several organizations provide free experiences such as camping retreats and outdoor challenges that bring those battling cancer together with people who have gone through it.
Camp Good Days and Special Times provides free camp services for children who have cancer, have a parent or sibling with cancer, or lost a parent or sibling to cancer. Weekend adult retreats are also offered. To learn more, visit campgooddays.org.
Camp Mak-A-Dream is free to cancer survivors between ages 18 and 40. Campers can participate in activities like swimming, horseback riding, field sports, pottery, weaving and jewelry making. The camp also offers adult retreats. To learn more, call 406-549-5987 or visit campdream.org.
First Descents provides outdoor adventures of up to week, at no charge, for young adults aged 18 to 39 years affected by cancer. To learn more, call 303-945-2490, email email@example.com or visit firstdescents.org.
Project Koru brings the healing power of community and the outdoors for cancer survivors, who can participate in surfing, stand-up paddling, outrigger canoeing and snowboarding. To learn more, call 415-617-5678, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit projectkoru.org.
The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, founded by actor Paul Newman in 1988, was created to help seriously ill children celebrate fun and friendship for free. To learn more, visit holeinthewallgang.org.
Keeping family and friends updated on health can be overwhelming for patients. However, these resources try to make this job easier by keeping communication in one place.
CaringBridge lets patients post mass updates to everyone they choose to include in a private space; the organization provides emotional support, too. To learn more, call 651-789-2300 or visit caringbridge.org.
Lotsa Helping Hands simplifies the process of organizing help. Family and friends sign up to make meals, give rides to medical appointments, or stop by to say hello. To learn more, email email@example.com or visit lotsahelpinghands.com.
For many patients with cancer, as well as survivors, exercise such as yoga can benefit both body and mind. Certain fitness programs help alleviate physical side effects such as lymphedema, while others reduce stress and anxiety.
Cancer Support Community offers free fitness programs, cooking classes and nutrition lectures. To learn more, call 888-793-9355 or visit cancersupportcommunity.org/locations.
Livestrong at the YMCA offers free programs around the country. To learn more, call 855-220-7777 or visit livestrong.org/what-we-do/program/livestrong-at-the-ymca.
Yoga Bear provides a list of yoga studios around the country that offer free or reduced-cost classes to patients undergoing treatment. To learn more, visit yogabear.org.
HATS, HEADWEAR AND WIGS
The following organizations offer free headwear such as hats, scarves and wigs to patients who experience hair loss, a common side effect of chemotherapy.
• The Breast Friends Hat Project: Call 888-386-8048 or visit breastfriends.org. • EBeauty Community: Email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit ebeauty.com. • Friends Are By Your Side: Call 856-582-6600, email email@example.com or visit friendsarebyyourside.com. • Good Wishes: Call 888-778-5998, email info@ goodwishesscarves.org or visit goodwishesscarves.org. • Heavenly Hats Foundation: Call 920-362-2668 or visit heavenlyhats.org. • Lolly’s Locks, call 240-428-1984: Email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit lollyslocks.org.
Some local affiliates of Susan G. Komen distribute free wigs. Call your local chapter to see if they offer wigs in your area.
HOME CLEANING SERVICES
Patients undergoing active treatment likely will not have the strength or feel up to doing household chores and cleaning. That’s where Cleaning For A Reason comes in. Created in 2006, the nonprofit organization works with maid services throughout the United States and Canada to offer free housecleaning. To learn more, call 877-337-3348, email email@example.com or visit cleaningforareason.org.
INSURANCE MEDIATION ASSISTANCE
Patients with cancer often find themselves at odds with insurers or face other disputes over access to coverage or benefits. This process of appeal can be daunting and stressful, but Cancer Legal Resource Center offers free information that may help. To learn more, call 866-843-2572, email CLRC@drlcenter.org or visit cancerlegalresources.org.
Treatment for cancer is stressful enough, but arranging and affording transportation to and from a hospital or cancer center can be trying, too. Sometimes treatment must be received at a care facility many miles away or in another state, a situation that can cause significant financial hard-ship. The following are some of the organizations that offer free ground or air transportation for patients.
The Air Care Alliance allows patients in need to reach out to all the charitable organizations offering free air transportation at once or specific member organizations. To learn more, call 888-260-9707, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit aircar-ealliance.org.
The groups listed below can help, as well.
• AeroAngel: Call 303-817-7355, email email@example.com or visit aeroangel.org. • Children’s Flight of Hope: Call 919-466-8593, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit childrensflightofhope.org. • Corporate Angel Network: Call 914-328-1313, email email@example.com or visit corpangelnetwork.org. • The American Cancer Society’s Road to Recovery: Call 800-227-2345 or visit cancer.org/treatment/support-programs-and-services/road-to-recovery.html.