A cancer diagnosis impacts all aspects of life, and staying on top of finances while dealing with everything else can be an enormous challenge. Tricia Hutchison, a CancerControl Alberta social worker with Alberta Health Services’ Community Cancer Centres, offers her advice on what to consider financially following a diagnosis.
Q: What is the first thing to consider financially after being diagnosed?
It can be overwhelming to try to deal with the many details of the diagnosis. For those reasons, I think it’s important for people to come and talk to a social worker if they feel like they could use some support. They don’t have to be referred; they can request to talk to one. Social workers can help patients to understand some of the details and some of the next steps. In the early stages, when they’re looking at getting tests done and waiting to hear from a doctor about a plan, [it’s not yet clear] what medications might be the most appropriate — and some medications can be very expensive. We try to encourage patients to consider that early, so we can get them access to some kind of medication coverage if they don’t have any.
Q: What kind of financial challenges do cancer patients face?
A large majority [of patients] need time away from work to be able to look after themselves and get treatment. But there are extra expenses that go along with a cancer diagnosis, and your income is decreased if you’re not working. It can be a very difficult time, and it can impact people significantly in terms of being able to make monthly payments for a mortgage, utilities, car — those kinds of things. I generally try to encourage people to think about how they can simplify their expenses upon diagnosis if they are feeling financially stressed.
Q: What other steps should cancer patients take to manage their finances?
If they are employed and have a confirmed diagnosis, they should speak to their employer about what kind of benefits the employer might have to offer. There may be sick benefits, there may be short-term or long-term disability. It’s encouraged to have those conversations early because the more the patient knows about what types of financial support there are, the better they can plan for things.
Q: How can patients determine if they have medication coverage?
First, they need to find out from their employer if they have medication coverage [through work]. It’s important to be specific when asking, and to use the word “medication.” We’re not talking about extra health-care coverage or about Alberta Healthcare — we’re talking specifically about coverage for medication. If patients don’t have coverage through their employer, there is a something called Alberta Blue Cross Non-Group Coverage, which gives access to an economical supplementary health benefits program. That application can take up to three months for coverage, which is why we need people to apply for it as soon as possible.
Q: What if they don’t have coverage through their employer?
There is a sickness benefit through Employment Insurance, which is administered by Service Canada, but it’s important to remember that this sickness benefit only lasts 15 weeks. The Alberta Cancer Foundation’s Patient Financial Assistance Program is another fantastic program that helps with financial support, but people have to apply with the help of a social worker to qualify for it.
To donate to the Patient Financial Assistance Program, visit albertacancer.ca
Three Other Financial Steps to Take Before or After a Diagnosis
Meet with your bank. Some mortgages or lines of credit have critical illness insurance.
Phone your credit card company. Some credit cards include critical illness benefits.
Look into private funding that may be available from various foundations.