“You’ve got cancer.”
An estimated 1.7 million Americans will hear those terrifying words in 2018.1 As you or a loved one deals with the range of emotions that comes from hearing those three life-altering words, be aware there will soon be a lot of decisions to make. But there’s no need to rush. In most cases, the cancer has been there for years. Barring a medical emergency, taking a week or so to find some level of perspective is not likely to adversely affect treatment.
Unlike most healthcare issues that can be privately managed between the doctor and the patient, cancer is different. It’s more complex. A cancer diagnosis touches the lives of everyone important to you. There’s a lot to think about and organize: cancer therapy and recovery, career disruption, spouse and family member impact, potential financial challenges, and even everyday household logistics like yardwork and transportation.
Some might feel it’s unrealistic or even thoughtless to expect someone who just learned they have cancer to consider so many important issues. On the contrary, now is the time to organize thoughts and take immediate action to help reset feelings in a more positive direction. It can help provide a sense of ownership in a situation where there’s already a feeling of helplessness.
To assist during this difficult time, we’ve put together some tips that can help get you or your loved ones pointed in the right direction in the search for answers. For an in-depth resource, download Transamerica’s Field Guide to Life After a Cancer Diagnosis.
As you or a loved one begins this unwanted journey, it helps to gather as much reliable information as possible. Start a journal with notes, important names, websites, phone numbers, and helpful resources as there’ll be a lot of key decisions to make right out of the gate, including:
- Selecting a cancer care team
- Choosing a trusted, experienced oncologist
- Considering getting a second opinion
- Reaching out to your insurance company to discuss your situation
- Working with your team to gather the information needed to make informed decisions
- Deciding on an initial treatment plan with your oncologist
- Notifying the people with whom you will share your diagnosis
- Identifying and asking for the help and support you’ll need in the weeks ahead
You or a loved one has already been hit with the bad news. Now it’s time for some good news: Cancer treatment today is vastly improved over cancer therapy from the past. According to the most current statistics from the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for all cancers combined has improved to 69%.2 Depending on the diagnosis and overall health, treatment options may include surgery, radiation, immunotherapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, or targeted molecular therapy, among others. These treatments might be used alone or in combination.
Make sure you understand what the treatment process looks like and what type of side effects can be expected. Establish a robust support network and try to maintain a strong, positive attitude.
Impact on family and friends
Cancer affects not only the patient but also family members and close friends. Some may be inclined to conceal a cancer diagnosis with the hopes of sparing others misery — especially children. But this isn’t always the best approach. Avoiding the topic may only result in confusion and resentment from those left in the dark.
Talking openly about cancer helps friends and family express their feelings and helps them prepare for the future. Communication is key. Talk about your hopes, but don’t neglect your worries. Behavioral specialists have observed that serious crises like a health scare can actually become an opportunity for positive family growth.
Acknowledge that family life goes on even when a parent develops cancer. It can be healthier for family members to maintain as normal a daily routine as possible. But, since the new cancer patient will now have days filled with lab tests, doctor’s appointments, treatments, and resting, the family may need to devise a new plan to cover household responsibilities.
Many people will genuinely ask if they can help. Don’t hesitate to accept that help. Give them one specific task they can do such as yardwork or running errands. Never underestimate the kindness of others. They want to help, let them. Also, consider using today’s digital technology for solutions like pharmacy and banking apps, meal delivery, and at-home services.
As much as it may feel like they don’t belong, financial discussions are a necessary part of the cancer conversation. A cancer diagnosis can be expensive to treat, which creates added stress and anxiety at an already difficult time. Insurance won’t cover everything, nor will Medicare. Patients will likely be responsible for a significant share of the total costs of treatment.
Start by talking to employers about work schedules, paid sick leave, unpaid medical leave, available disability benefits, future work arrangements, and other concerns. It’s likely you or a loved one will have to borrow from savings, retirement accounts, home equity, and even the cash value of life insurance. But remember, no one fights cancer alone, nor should they manage their finances alone:
- Consider hiring a trusted, knowledgeable financial professional. Their experience may help save time and money and generate ideas that, otherwise, would never have been considered.
- Contact current professionals (accountant, tax preparer, attorney, etc.) and inform them of the situation. They may have contacts who may be able to help.
- Specify a trusted individual as a Durable Power of Attorney (DPOA) to approve documents or transactions whenever the patient is unavailable.
- Getting a handle on finances can help de-stress an already stressful situation.
Income and insurance
As people get sick, their ability to work or generate income drops about the same time their healthcare expenses increase. This two-pronged effect, in addition to steep out-of-pocket patient costs, can cause many cancer survivors to be saddled with enormous debt as they attempt to resume a normal life. Families of the deceased can confront a similar fate.
Work with a financial professional to identify income sources, benefits, and where more income could be generated. It may be possible to borrow against the cash value of existing life insurance policies or make a hardship withdrawal from a retirement account. Learn everything possible about eligibility for disability payments, Social Security, annuities, and pensions. Also, review insurance plans to ensure they fit current and future needs, and discuss whether additional policies should be considered to fill coverage gaps.
Knowing beforehand about the expected costs of care and how best to manage them will allow you or your loved one to focus on regaining good health. It may also help lower stress around you or your family member’s finances.
- In developing a cancer treatment strategy, identify all of the costs for medical and non-medical care. The information is available but you usually have to ask for it.
- Speak with the health insurance provider or Medicare to identify how much of the cancer care expenditures are covered, the coverage limits, and how much will be out-of-pocket. Specifically ask about the different elements of the proposed treatment plan to ensure they are all covered. Make sure any pre-authorizations are completed prior to initiating treatment.
- Be candid with the cancer care team about available strategies that could lower the costs of cancer treatment without sacrificing efficacy. Cancer care team members often know the best ways to navigate the system.
- Use online tools, reliable published information, and other resources that will help better plan costs before, during, and after cancer treatment.
Plan to persevere
If you or a loved one has been recently diagnosed with cancer, remember that it is not the end for most people. There are over 15 million cancer survivors in America.1 It is the beginning of a new chapter in life that, like most, takes the proper planning and preparation. Doing your homework and learning as much as possible can make all the difference in reducing stress and helping plan for the financial and medical challenges that lay ahead.
Don’t be afraid to rely on the experience of qualified professionals when navigating the expense of cancer care and other important decisions. Allow the freedom to accept the help of others and, most importantly, be willing to own the journey. Don’t let fear, money, or doctors dictate how the battle will be played out. For many, cancer is a personal struggle, but it doesn’t have to be fought alone.
Transamerica’s Wealth + Health professionals have developed a valuable companion toolkit that can help you get organized and prepared for you or a loved one’s cancer journey. Download our “Field Guide to Life After a Cancer Diagnosis.”
Things to Consider:
- Keep a journal with notes, important names, websites, phone numbers, and helpful resources so you can reference them whenever needed.
- Keep a strong, positive attitude that you or your loved one is not about to surrender. This generates strong ripples throughout your network of supporters.
- Try to reduce stress and worry by gathering reliable information and surrounding yourself with trusted, experienced professionals (both medical and financial). Knowledge is power.
1 American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts & Figures 2018. Atlanta: American Cancer Society; 2018.
2 Cancer Trends Progress Report. National Cancer Institute, NIH, DHHS: Bethesda, MD; 2018.
This information is intended for general audiences only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice. No recommendations regarding cancer diagnosis or treatment are provided. Readers should not rely on this article for making healthcare decisions. When it comes to a serious illness like cancer, your personal physicians know the specifics regarding your health. They are most qualified to provide the answers you need to make informed decisions about your care. Transamerica does not provide tax, legal, or medical advice.