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Supporting people with cancer experiencing financial distress

Friday 10 December, 2021

Financial distress can negatively affect quality of life for cancer patients and their families.

Following a cancer diagnosis, there is often minimal information regarding the true costs involved. Half of Australians with cancer have out of pocket costs exceeding $5,000. Alongside this, there is often an unanticipated and dramatic reduction in household income as people cease work or reduce work hours during treatment.

Often carers also take time off work to care for loved ones. Alarmingly, 1 in 6 people report skipping medications or delay seeing a cancer specialist for concerns about cost. The financial hardship people are experiencing has only been magnified by COVID-19 and the subsequent restrictions. In addition to added anxiety and mental health strain, COVID-19 has caused serious financial hardships for many cancer patients who were already experiencing the financial burden of cancer.

We anticipate and are already seeing a significant increase in the number of people requiring practical and financial assistance, particularly as government assistance schemes are reduced.

Of the nearly 10,000 Victorians who contacted our cancer nurses seeking information or support in 2020, one third had concerns about financial and legal issues because of a cancer diagnosis. We know the experience of financial hardship is not equal – it can be influenced by the type of cancer you have, where you live, your socioeconomic status and even by your cultural background.

At a time when people should be focused on their health, extra, and often unavoidable expenses, become a real source of anxiety that can seriously impact patients and their families.

Vicki’s cancer diagnosis left her in financial distress Vicki’s cancer diagnosis caught her completely by surprise and it quickly left her in financial trouble. When a persistent cough hadn’t cleared, Vicki was sent for tests. Just a few days after her birthday, a PET scan confirmed the worst. She had aggressive stage 1 cancer in her lungs.

“It all happened so quickly. My head just spun. When you hear a diagnosis like that it’s true what they say. Your whole life flashes before your eyes in an instant.”

Within two weeks, Vicki was in hospital getting ready for life-saving surgery. There’s no good time to get cancer, but the timing of Vicki’s diagnosis could barely have been worse. She’d only just moved into a new job in aged care. As a casual worker, Vicki had no leave or sick pay, and no way to earn an income during her recovery.

“Someone brought some mail in for me, and it was all bills. Electricity, gas and my car rego were all due. All my savings had already gone to paying for all the visits to the specialists. When those bills started piling up, I was just so scared. I’ve never been in debt in my life.” As she began three months of intense chemotherapy, Vicki’s financial situation continued to worsen.

As Vicki’s expenses continued to build up, so did her stress and anxiety levels. “I wasn't coping. I had no idea what to do about the whole money side of things.” Feeling totally overwhelmed and not knowing who to turn to, Vicki called Cancer Council Victoria’s 13 11 20 information and support line and was connected to our financial counsellor Antony.

She says it is one of the most important phone calls she’s ever made.

As a highly qualified and experienced financial counsellor, Antony offers expert practical advice and guidance over the phone to help patients manage the cost of their cancer. “When I spoke to him, I was crying on the phone. Antony was really lovely.

The way he spoke to me made me feel like I was getting a hug.” Vicki says her 40-minute conversation with Antony was life-changing. It put her mind at ease and helped her get back on top of her finances.

While Vicki has a whole lot more treatment and care in front of her, at the moment she’s strong and healthy enough to be back at work and spending precious time with her grandchildren, Harley and Oliver.