Cancer and Money: My Unprofessional and Probably Somewhat Unsound Choices

The diagnosis is difficult enough. Once you hear the word “cancer,” the world becomes a blur of shock, grief, appointments, treatment plans, and phone calls. The ground beneath your feet is unstable, and your future is no longer sure. Your calendar is no longer yearly; it bends into a series of hours, days, possibly weeks — months and years if you are lucky.

With cancer, time changes.

Time compresses. It becomes urgent. It becomes How much longer? and When will I know? It is waiting, waking, sleeping, weeping, and more waiting. Time turns into a photo negative, a dream-state in which death – and/or the fear of death – feels imminent.

It is a cruel and double whammy that, while processing the enormity of a cancer diagnosis, you must also face its interruption of the momentum of your life. You must suddenly make tedious and quantifiable decisions with long-term consequences. Cancer impacts it all: where you live, your relationships, children if you have them, and your finances. Everything becomes negotiable in your priority to survive. And this includes bill payments, travel plans, life insurance, savings, living trusts, disability, college or retirement – in other words, money. Money symbolizes hope. It can symbolize your future. And if you’re still working, as I was and am, a flurry of changes must be considered.

Below is a list of my own financial decisions. These are always up for negotiation due to the risk of recurrence, my work situation, and energy levels. And I do not in any way recommend these steps. Everyone’s situation is different. But I do want to share this roadmap in the hope of supporting someone else through this process.  I also want to preface this by recognizing that I have a spouse with a health plan, a stable living situation, and a support network of friends and family. I am aware that many people struggle and do not have this support. With that in mind, I’ve included a short list of links at the end of this piece to help you make your own decisions about how to proceed, and to find support (empathy, godspeed) if you need it.

So, a few months after the cancer diagnosis, here is what I did:

1. I stopped saving for retirement.

opened mouth black haired boy in gray full zip jacket standing on grass field taking selfie
I hear Suze Orman screaming, “Nooooooo!”

You might think this decision was foolish, and I don’t recommend it. But consider: The prognosis for stage 3C triple negative breast cancer, with lymph node involvement, felt terribly grim (SEE IMPORTANT FOOTNOTE)[1]. Major surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation were in my future. I was in shock and grief, and wanted the money to help with treatment, counseling, and possible bucket list traveling with my husband and daughter. And the truth is that I don’t regret this decision. Not one bit. The small pleasures it granted our family were worth it. Noteworthy, too, is that this decision has also recently changed. With my recovery from this recurrence – a second round of chemotherapy and surgery – I’m shoveling small bits back into the 401K. I might very well live to retire, so with one big toe into the tepid IRA waters, I’ll start to save again. Crossing my fingers toes.

2. We made a Living Trust. Through an online legal service called Nolo (we have no commercial or other interest in them), my husband and I filled out the paperwork and got it done. It was simple and straightforward, and I felt such relief after completing it. After cancer, I had this terrible fear that my husband would also get ill and that our daughter would be left destitute. Completing these documents forced us to answer questions and make definitive plans for the worst case.

There are many companies that provide this service online. You can also hire an attorney, and they probably have better resources and more in-depth information about specifics, but the cost, likely over $1,000.00, is prohibitive. We didn’t have the cognitive or financial bandwidth for it. We live simply and don’t have complex financial dealings, so the online way worked for us.

3. We bought more services. Not things, not stuff, but help. One of the first services we purchased was a housecleaner. Twice a month, we hired a wonderful duo that came and deep-cleaned our house. May larks sing their praises. My energy levels tanked after chemo and surgery. Our family still had work, school, appointments – things to do. Coupled with a tired and sometimes cranky mama, this was a recipe for laundry piles, paper piles, random tufts of cat hair, stacked dishes, and an overwhelming sense of household chaos. But thanks to our housecleaners – whom we still hire, and tip, and thank, and are deeply grateful for – some sense of organization has stayed. Other services we purchased were: gardening, tree trimming, and Uber (after surgery).

Free housecleaning services for women with cancer (sorry, guys) are available here: Cleaning for a Reason.

4. We spent more on food. We bought healthier groceries and healthier pre-packaged foods. I didn’t and don’t always have the energy to prepare healthy meals, so it was often the grocery store salad kit, organic eggs, and splurging on the Whole Foods salad bar. Eating fresh produce requires frequent trips to the grocery store, meaning more money spent. We also treated ourselves to the occasional fancy meal. Worth every penny.

5. We bought less stuff. Gone were/are the days of impulse clothing purchases, for example. The trendy catalogue companies know our budget runs low. The library is the sole source for books (sorry, Amazon and independent booksellers) and thrift stores cheaply relieve any sudden need for novelty. We were never big on furniture, but any décor dreaming these days is tempered by bills. Dreaming it shall be. I’m ok with that.

Here’s the thing: I don’t know how long I have left. The scales weigh in favor of recurrence, meaning 1-2 years, but there’s always a possibility of long-term remission. This means Be careful with money. Be careful with your time. This has translated, financially, into permission to spend more on experiences, travel, life. Less stuff. No new car, no new table. Not a problem. But Paris? A five-star meal? Maybe. Possibly.

man standing on arc doorway

The way is open.

If you have cancer, what changes have you made? What are some of your considerations on this time- and life-changing path?

 

Places to Start:

  1. Cancercare.org – They provide a plethora of services, including free rides to treatment and financial assistance.
  2. The American Cancer Society website includes resources for short-term housing and free food.
  3. The Cancer Financial Assistance Coalition (CFAC) is a national network “helping cancer patients manage their financial challenges.” Their resources are extensive.

 

[1] And yet nearly three years later, I am here. I’m running a 5k race next month. Memo: Don’t Google your prognosis.

4 thoughts on “Cancer and Money: My Unprofessional and Probably Somewhat Unsound Choices”

  1. You have such an ability to put to words all those feelings and ideas whirling in our heads, as cancer patients. Your observation about changed time is spot on.

    To answer your question – the chages I’ve made are really very similar. I cancelled my appointment regarding retirement plan and don’t ever plan to enter any. Since my diagnosis, we’ve spent much more on food that has been usuall for our family. We, too, arranged for house cleaning 1-2 x a month. I am still in treatment, so no travelling for us (yet). On the other hand, unlike you, I’ve spent some (unusual) money on things – things that I use for my hobby, a usefull hobby for my whole family that has been neglected for some time prior to my dx. This helps me to channell my emotions, train my chemo brain and my neuropatic fingers. Well, but the pile of things in my house has grown…

    I wish you continued good health and wish you luck on your race!

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    1. JaBoo, so good to hear from you. Sounds like we have made some similar financial decisions, decisions that make sense for where we are right now. Finding a hobby to distract you from “Cancerland” is really important, I think. I wish you continued healing and strength in your treatments. Thank you for the good wishes on my race! I plan to go very slowly and enjoy being outside. Take care.

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  2. Yeah, the financial side isn’t something that really occurred to me before I was diagnosed. I missed so much work! So, I did not contribute to my retirement account this past year. I hope to again this year, but it just wasn’t possible. I was already in the midst of a no-spend year, so other than purchases directly related to a mastectomy and my changed body, I stuck with it. And continue to not spend much on discretionary things. We eat out a lot less but buy good food to cook. And I agree about experiences. We took a trip to Aruba the week before my mastectomy and plan to go to Key Largo once my port is out. And we’re saving to travel somewhere great next year. I don’t want to have my cancer come back and regret not traveling while I can.

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    1. Secret Agent Woman, Aruba sounds so lovely. The idea of traveling before cancer returns hits home with me. We are making some plans now as well, which means not spending on other things, but it’s a choice we’re willing to make. Would love to hear about Key Largo and I hope you post some photos on your blog. Here’s to health, good food, and less stuff. Take care.

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