When Jenna was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 21, she was concerned that going for mojitos and mezze with friends at her local bar might not be the healthiest option, but what she didn’t expect was that she might no longer be able to afford it.
Jenna’s case isn’t unique; with chemo, hair loss and fatigue to contend with, it’s not hard to see why the financial impact of cancer is often overlooked. But considering that 33% of those diagnosed with cancer stop work either temporarily or altogether, and an estimated 700,000 people with cancer in the UK have no savings, it’s an all-too-stark reality for many.
A recent report by the charity Macmillan Cancer Support surveyed 1,610 people with cancer and found that 83% are £570 worse off a month due to lost earnings, increased travel or higher heating bills – necessary because they’re feeling the cold more.
Often, the stress and anxiety caused by these unexpected costs can begin to overshadow the cancer itself. For 34-year-old Samia*, a former manager at a youth charity, the impact of not being able to work for a year and a half after discovering she had ovarian cancer was one of the "toughest parts" of her diagnosis: “It was devastating. When I was going through chemo, there were costs I just didn’t think about, even down to something as trivial as [buying special] toothpaste, or having the heating on all the time even in summer because of my poor circulation.”
Lucy Schonegevel, a spokesperson at Macmillan, agrees: “When you’re diagnosed with cancer, the last thing you need to be worrying about is how to pay the bills, put food on the table and keep a roof over your head,” she explains.
Travelling to and from appointments can also take a toll. Samia recalls taking taxis from the hospital after chemo left her "too weak to walk" – and she’s certainly not the only one. Macmillan estimates that 69% of people with cancer pay a monthly average of £170 on travel expenses.
Likewise, as Samia was instructed to follow a high-protein diet as well as buying fresh fruit and vegetables every day, she found her food bills escalating.
You’d assume that banks would be empathetic in such a situation, but Samia found it tough to deal with “condescending and patronising” bank staff and even had her account closed after being unable to make credit card repayments. “My partner found me crying five times after being on the phone to the banks. Even two years down the line, I refuse to open a bank account. They’re happy to take your money when you’re working but the reality is, when you’re sick, you’re treated appallingly.”
She attributes the difficulties to a lack of specialist training: “There are so many patients like me the banks could learn from. They need financial specialist teams as it could be so much better managed.”
While Samia concedes she was “one of the lucky ones”, due to family support, she says it was a struggle being unable to pay her share of the rent and bills without constant negotiation with her partner. “It’s my pride. Cancer makes you feel helpless anyway, but finances add to that.”
As a 21-year-old you want to be independent. I would have liked to buy clothes, go out with friends, even just get some petrol to drive here and there.
It’s not hard to see why some of the women I spoke to felt like they’d regressed back to childhood. Essex-based Jenna moved back in with her parents after being diagnosed with breast cancer and wasn’t entitled to any benefits as she was still formally recognised as a student. While her peers were looking forward to their first job and that first paycheque, Jenna was forced briefly to suspend her studies – but was still expected to pay the last few months of rent and bills for a student house that she was no longer living in. “I assumed I’d be working straight after graduating. I was a student when I had cancer so I’ve never been financially stable anyway but I’m in a lot of debt from university and my overdraft has taken a battering.”
While she was grateful to her parents (mostly her mum) for their ongoing support, including buying post-mastectomy bras, clothes, new wigs and eyebrow tattooing to boost her confidence after chemo, Jenna admits it was tough being financially dependent. “As a 21-year-old you want to be independent after uni and I definitely wasn’t. I still would have liked to buy clothes, go out with friends, even just being able to get some petrol to drive here and there. I wasn’t comfortable with being reliant on my mum as it’s not something that she should be doing for me at my age.” She adds: “I should be paying for her, treating her, not the other way around.”
Many parents may be used to financially helping out their adult children but what happens when a cancer diagnosis means the roles are reversed? Christine, a 59-year-old from Penryn, borrowed £2,000 from her daughter to clear her overdraft – that puts her among the 16,000 parents with cancer who, at the time of Macmillan's report, were estimated to have borrowed money from their grown-up children.
After being diagnosed with neck cancer six years ago, she left her job as a social worker. She recalls finding it difficult to readjust to changes both in her job as well as her physical appearance following nerve damage caused by the treatment: “I felt really lost during this time.” But it wasn’t just her appearance and employment status that underwent a radical transformation. We often see home as a place we can retreat to when we experience issues in the outside world but Christine ended up downsizing her “swanky” apartment in Falmouth to a neighbouring town. While her overdraft offered respite after repaying her landlord £7,000 for repairs, this was only temporary as new bank changes led to interest rates on her overdraft skyrocketing. “I was very withdrawn, isolated and lost confidence” she says of this period in her life.
It's easy to assume that people who have experienced cancer will no longer struggle with money once they return to paid employment but, sadly, this isn’t quite the case. When Christine landed a new role at charity Age UK as a living well co-ordinator, which involved a 50-mile commute, she was concerned about how she would fund repairs to her car (public transport wasn’t viable, due to her ongoing anxiety regarding her appearance). Christine was grateful to receive a £350 patient grant from Macmillan and, later, £1,300 from her ex-partner for a deposit on a new car.
16,000 parents with cancer were estimated to have borrowed money from their grown-up children.
Similarly, since finishing her degree and landing a permanent role as a client relations team assistant, Jenna is yet to receive her first paycheque. “For now, my mum is still supporting me.”
All three of the women I spoke to were fortunate to have support from their families, partners and Macmillan – but what happens when you don’t have anyone to rely on? Macmillan recommends healthcare professionals are trained to raise awareness of money worries among cancer patients. And considering that 2% of people used their bank as a source of support, there is a clear need for staff to be confident in identifying and helping customers with cancer.
For those struggling with finances, Lucy Schonegevel advises them to contact Macmillan, who offer financial guidance and grants, including “support to unlock benefits they may not be aware they are entitled to”. Meanwhile, Samia recommends StepChange, the UK's debt charity, as they can assist with writing letters on your behalf.
While Macmillan hopes that by 2030, every person affected by cancer will get financial support, for now it's worth remembering that a cancer diagnosis comes with a heavy price tag.