In the winter of 2013, Garnet Greipl spent most days on the road, travelling away from his family in Didsbury, AB, to work as a contractor for oil companies.
But that spring, his life turned upside down. He was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. As a result, he still spent many days on the road, but now it was in order to travel back and forth to Calgary for treatment.
Self-employed but unable to work full-time, Greipl and his wife drew from their retirement funds to cover their bills. Those bills, unlike their savings, seemed endless. By fall, they were struggling to cover their mortgage and the costs associated with his frequent trips for treatment.
“Cancer pretty much took everything that we had,” Greipl says.
But a boost arrived — in the form of financial help from the Alberta Cancer Foundation’s Patient Financial Assistance Program (PFAP), a relief program for cancer patients who are undergoing active treatment. Funded by donor dollars, PFAP covers costs like housing, food, childcare and transportation — things often omitted from other kinds of financial aid.
Greipl heard about the program through Holly Minor, a social worker at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary. They’d been introduced after Greipl answered a standardized form — part of the Putting Patients First Program, an initiative the Foundation has also invested in — given to all cancer patients in the province. In it, he’d ranked financial hardship as a major stressor.
On their first meeting, Minor completed the paperwork for his PFAP application. About six weeks later, Greipl began receiving regular financial aid to cover his hospital parking and transportation to and from Calgary.
Greipl says PFAP reduced the burden of financial stress during one of the hardest periods of his life. “It helped me get through a lot of tough times,” he says.
Many cancer patients earn a reduced income or no income at all during treatment and even after treatment. But costs of everyday living — things like mortgages, groceries, utilities — don’t change. If anything, cancer brings additional bills. Things like hospital parking, medications and transportation to and from hospital add up quickly.
“Cancer can be impoverishing,” says Minor. “The research shows that when there’s financial stress, it’s often greater than the stress of a cancer diagnosis and the treatment that people are facing. I can vouch for that. I’ve heard people say, ‘The cancer diagnosis is nothing compared to my concerns of how to feed my children.’”
Researchers use the phrase financial toxicity to describe financial stress related to cancer, an acknowledgement that disease-related debts cause enough burden to qualify as an adverse side-effect, much like the toxicity of chemotherapy. Running for more than 15 years, PFAP is designed to reduce this financial toxicity by providing relief to patients from costs that are directly associated with cancer treatment.
Most patients who receive PFAP are referred by doctors, nurses or pharmacists, often based on the questionnaires patients fill out at the cancer centre. Social workers then conduct a detailed assessment of each applicant, taking into account things like income and savings, number of dependents, assets and eligibility for government funding. Funds are allocated based on detailed guidelines created by the Alberta Cancer Foundation.
Often, PFAP is a way to help cover a person’s expenses while they are waiting for insurance or government assistance to begin. “It’s a fund of last resort,” says Minor. “It can’t replace an income. But when someone has nothing else, we use this if they qualify.”
The amount of money given is based on a person’s need: for some, that may mean covering a utility bill; for others, it’s helping with ongoing costs related to treatment. According to Minor, PFAP is especially helpful for self-employed patients or those from rural areas whose treatments require living away from their homes for months.
“What this fund does is vitally important,” she says. “We help people negotiate that period of time where they are really in shock.”
PFAP is available to adult patients who are residents of Alberta. In 2017, the program was used 4,962 times by patients who received more than $1.2 million in assistance.
Paying it Forward
Last August, when the Enbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer was cancelled due to smoke from the British Columbia wildfires, a team of riders entered the Tasty Thai restaurant that Garnet Greipl runs with his wife. To express his heartfelt gratitude for their fundraising efforts, Greipl bought all of their meals.