After a cancer diagnosis, many people worry about how they will manage the financial impact.
There are many different types of costs that could add up during treatment and recovery. You may have health-related expenses, such as medicines, equipment and specialist fees. As well as these costs, there can be extra costs for transport, accommodation, child care or complementary therapies. At the same time, cancer may mean a loss of income if you or your partner has to take time off work.
When you are diagnosed with cancer, it can be difficult to know where to start. Some of the key financial questions are outlined below. You can ask your doctor, social worker or cancer nurse to help you work through these, or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.
If you are working, ask your doctor how much time off you are likely to need or whether you will be able to work throughout your treatment and recovery. Check with your employer about leave entitlements and flexible working arrangements. If you have a partner or carer, they should check with their employer as well. Find out whether they can take carer’s leave to look after you and/or your children.
Check whether you have any income protection insurance (also known as salary continuance insurance). You might have taken out a separate policy, or it could have been provided by your employer or attached to your superannuation. If you do have this insurance, find out whether it covers your situation, and whether there is a waiting period before you can make a claim.
“My income was reduced when I cut back my working hours, but I was able to scrape by. I saved up some money during my paid sick leave.” – Sarah
Knowing all the costs before agreeing to treatment is called informed financial consent. Before you decide whether to have treatment as a private or public patient, ask the doctor and hospital how much consultations and treatment will cost, if there will be any up-front or out-of-pocket (gap) expenses, and whether they offer flexible repayment plans. If you have private health insurance, ask the insurer about your gap cover.
If you are struggling financially, talk to your doctor. They may suggest ways to reduce your treatment costs, or they might be able to keep seeing you as a public patient. Your doctor can refer you to a social worker or welfare officer for additional advice. In some cases, if you have no other resources to pay for treatment, you may be able to access your superannuation.
Check where you can have the treatment. If you need to travel away from home, there will be transport and accommodation costs, although some help is available.
The financial impact of cancer is different for each person and will depend on the cancer type, stage and treatment, as well as your financial situation before the diagnosis.
An important step in managing your finances is to fully assess your situation (see Preparing a budget). If you are experiencing financial hardship, take action early. The longer you wait, the more worrying the debts will become. Explain your circumstances to your creditors and service providers, and often they will try to help you.
Sorting out finances can place strain on your wellbeing and on your relationships. Talking to a trusted family member or a professional adviser about your finances may help you to see your situation clearly and find solutions. There are a number of specialist financial and support services available. Cancer Council’s Pro Bono Program may be able to help, or you can get in touch with these organisations.
When cancer changes your financial plans, it can be a good idea to seek guidance from a professional. Whether you should see a financial counsellor or financial planner will depend on your circumstances. Find a financial counsellor or financial planner.
Financial counsellors – provide practical advice to help people managing their personal budget and finances; work closely with community organisations that assist people in financial difficulty, especially those on low incomes; will act as a negotiator and advocate for people who are at financial risk; and provide a free service to their clients (they are not allowed to charge fees or commissions).
Financial planners – provide investment advice to help people manage their assets and achieve their financial goals; work for businesses with an Australian financial services licence; and charge fees (i.e. do not provide a free service).
Cancer Council’s Pro Bono Program may be able to help if you or someone in your family has cancer, and you need financial, legal or workplace advice. We can connect you with professionals to assist you with:
The assistance is free for eligible clients who pass a means test. If you do not satisfy the means test, you can still choose to get paid assistance
Keeping track of your money will help you gain more control over your finances. Preparing a budget will help you understand how much money you have and how much you need to meet your expenses.
To prepare a budget, begin by writing down all your income and expenses and then calculate the difference. To track your expenses, try keeping a daily spending diary for a couple of weeks and write down where all your money goes. Another way to record your expenses is to download an app on your mobile phone (see 'Online tools' below).
If you are not sure where to start or your finances are complex, you can ask a financial counsellor or financial planner for assistance. Once you have prepared your budget, review it regularly, as your circumstances change.
Decide if your budget will be:
Many people choose the time frame that matches their pay period.
Work out the difference between your income and expenses. If your expenses are greater than your income, see How to balance your budget below.
Find a budget planner online. Try moneysmart.gov. au/tools-and-resources/ calculators-and-apps/ budget-planner.
You can record spending with a mobile phone app – visit the App Store (Apple phones) or Google Play (Android phones) to see what is available. For example, TrackMySPEND is a free, easy-to-use app provided by the Australian Government.
Sometimes people find they spend more than they earn, that is, their expenses are greater than their income. If this is the case for you, you may want to explore ways to reduce your expenses and/or supplement your income. You can read more about each option in these two sections, or talk to a financial counsellor.
Reviewed by: Sarah Penman, National Pro Bono Manager, Cancer Council; Mary Bairstow, Senior Social Worker, Cancer Centre, Fiona Stanley Hospital, South Metropolitan Health Service, WA; Catherine Beavan, Consumer; Jeanne Potts, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria, VIC; Alka Bisen, Financial Counsellor and Project Coordinator – Financial Assistance Services, Cancer Council NSW, NSW; Rebecca Wu, Associate, and Brenton Priestley, Senior Associate, Minter Ellison Lawyers, SA; Robert Simon, Technical Strategy Manager, AMP Advice – TapIn and Technical Capability, AMP Advice – Channel Services. We acknowledge the contribution of Louisa Fitz-Gerald, writer of the first edition of this booklet.
If you’re having difficulty paying your debts, you may want to consider ways to supplement your income.
Bankruptcy is a legal process that releases you from your debts. If you have debts that you’re unable to pay, and you cannot come to suitable payment arrangements with your creditors, you might be thinking about becoming bankrupt.
A wide range of organisations and health professionals can help you manage the financial impact of cancer.