Salary Interrupted

The world stops in the face of a cancer diagnosis. But the financial pressures of day-to-day life don’t go away, even for cancer

The year 2003 promised to be a very good one for Darren Neuberger.

Illustration by Raymond Reid

After years working in sales, the 34-year-old was starting a new career testing wells for an oil-and-gas company based in Grande Prairie. His wife, Jaylene, also had new prospects on the horizon: She was finishing college and starting a new job.

But Neuberger had been dogged by a cough all year. He’d seen a doctor a couple of times and had been sent home – it was flu season, after all. Finally, on a Friday just before he was to leave his home in Lethbridge for a month-long trip to an oil-and-gas camp, Jaylene convinced him to go to the emergency room. She thought he had pneumonia and didn’t want him going to camp without medicine for it. The ER doctor listened to his chest and nearly sent him home, too, until Neuberger mentioned a strange lump on his collarbone. The doctor sent him for a series of tests. By that afternoon, Neuberger had been diagnosed with cancer. It was acute lymphocytic leukemia.

His good year changed irrevocably. Instead of heading to camp, he was admitted as an in-patient at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary, two hours from home. High-dose chemo ravaged his immune system, and he contracted e-coli and a high fever. He was not able to go home for five months, and ultimately underwent treatment for a gruelling two years. For a young couple beginning new careers, it was two years of financial drought.

“People often forget that when you go through the cancer care experience, it isn’t just treatment,” Neuberger says. “Life goes on; bills go on.”

Neuberger received disability assistance, and they scraped by on his wife’s entry-level salary. They also received some extra help from the Alberta Cancer Foundation’s Patient Assistance Fund, available to provide short-term help to families with urgent financial needs.

“It helped us out in so many ways,” Neuberger says. “It took away the worry of how my wife was going to get to Calgary to see me. They helped us with gift certificates for groceries. It takes away one more stress that you don’t need when you’re going through the uncertainty of a cancer diagnosis.”

Bernie Dunlop is a social worker at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre. She meets people when they are first diagnosed with cancer, or sometimes when they have recently had surgery, or are struggling with treatment.

She says completing a financial assessment of cancer patients is one of the highest priorities for social workers.

“When people receive a diagnosis that usually means a drastic reduction in household income,” Dunlop says. That’s a problem, since it is not unusual for many families to live paycheque-to-paycheque, and they may be extremely uncomfortable talking about their personal finances.

“It is very humbling,” she says. “It is hard for people to tell us how much is in their chequing and savings accounts, if they even have them.”

Sometimes Dunlop directs people to social services. Social workers can also intercede with an insurance company if it begins to restrict coverage. She can also help people find debt-reduction resources. But for immediate, short-term assistance, she directs people to the Alberta Cancer Foundation’s Patient Financial Assistance Fund.

“For the individuals who are able to access this fund, we really stress the importance of it, because it allows them to focus on their self-care,” she says.

It took a lot of stress off of the Neubergers. Darren has now been cancer-free for six years, and works for the Alberta Cancer Foundation at the Jack Ady Centre in Lethbridge. In his off-work hours, he hosts the Let’s Talk About It radio show and wrote a book, Let’s Talk About It, focusing on people aged 18 to 34 who have cancer.

“There are a lot of us in that age group, where you may be starting a family, or are unable to have children because of treatment, and you aren’t under the care of your parents anymore but you may not have a lot of financial stability either,” he says.

In retrospect, he wishes he had listened to the insurance advisors who wanted to talk to him about disability coverage, as he had recently started a new job and wasn’t eligible for benefits from his employer. Although their family developed excellent budgeting skills, and even had some money in the bank when Neuberger was declared cancer-free in 2005, they went without things others might consider necessary. They cut back on everything.

Now he makes a point to tell people to plan for emergencies, even if it’s $20 a month, and to accept the help that is available. “You never know when you will be on the other side of that situation and able to be give back,” he says. “And it’s important, because at the end of the day, you should be focusing on getting better.”

Supporting the Patient Financial Assistance Fund

The Patient Financial Assistance Fund can be accessed by patients in need. After a financial assessment, a social worker provides the appropriate forms and, in some cases patients can access funds immediately so that nobody has to leave without the necessary medications.

The fund is supported by donations to the Alberta Cancer Foundation. The foundation designates about 70 per cent of funds towards research, 15 per cent to prevention and early diagnosis and 15 per cent to patient support, which includes the Patient Financial Assistance Fund.

Donors to the ACF can designate where they would like their money to go. Donations can stay in the community of origin to help people with immediate financial needs, including gift certificates for groceries, travel expenses and medication.

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