May 29, 2023

Cancer and Medical Debt


Is talking about money just too taboo?  Why in the young adult cancer world do I never ever hear anyone talking about medical debt?  It’s a crying shame because we’ve got plenty of it and it seems that a bit of conversation and education is in order.  Consider these factoids:

* More than 35% of all young adults have problems with medical bills including getting calls from collections agencies, paying off medical debt, or having to seriously alter their life to accommodate for medical expenses.

* Out of every age group in the United States, 18-34 year olds have the most medical debt.

Given these statistics, it seems likely that the numbers are even higher for young cancer survivors because we are racking up mega medical bills.

I’m going to make a series of blog posts about how to avoid and resolve medical debt, information about credit card usage for cancer patients, and where to get good credit counseling.

But before I dive into these issues, I wanted to pass on a suggestion from Joanna Morales, legal guru at the Cancer Legal Resources Center.  She says: Sometimes medical debt is the result of other unresolved medical issues such as unemployment due to discrimination or other issues around disability.  How can you get out of debt if you don’t look at the root of the problem?  Brilliant idea.  Contact the Cancer Legal Resource Center (866-THE-CLRC).  They are amazing and will help you brainstorm around the factors that are contributing to your medical debt.

Do you or have you ever had medical debt?  How often do you think about it and what impact does it make on your life?  Does it change any of the decisions you make about your care?  Is this something you discuss with friends, in cancer support groups, or talk about online?  If not, why not?

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  1. Michelle Says:
    May 29th, 2009 at 7:04 PM

    We are dealing with this right now. Granted, our medical debt isn’t nearly as high as others, but even a few hundred or thousand dollars of unexpected bills (as usually happens for young adult cancer patients because, let’s face it, we don’t expect this to happen to us - we’re young!) can have an enormous impact on your budget. I know for us, we live paycheck to paycheck, and the copays and co-insurances and prescriptions cost us dearly. This definitely needs to be discussed with young adults, especially Gen Xers who haven’t had to learn how to budget, manage money, etc. Great topic.

  2. Cecilia Says:
    May 30th, 2009 at 10:23 AM

    Something I learned a long time ago was to always purchase Life and Disability insurance with all my loans, credit cards and mortgage. The disability insurance has covered my car payment, mortgage payment and credit card payments while I was disabled due to my cancer diagnosis. I only wish I had known about the companies out there that will purchase/pay out your life insurance if you have been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Although I have not been diagnosed with terminal cancer, I do have metastatic cancer and I had to let my life insurance lapse due to all my medical expenses.

  3. Teresa Says:
    May 30th, 2009 at 12:25 PM

    When I was diagnosed with Melanoma, I was just starting out teaching at a new school - only two years out of college. I had massive college loan debt which prevented me from taking out any new loans, and my salary was too high to qualify for any financial assistance. Even the Lance Armstrong Foundation and the ACS told me “good luck” as no one took into consideration the student loans or car payments or anything else other than my gross pay and rent. For about eight months, I didn’t have enough money to buy groceries. The only way I managed to survive was by selling various items I had in my house on Craigslist. Two years out and I’m, thankfully, cancer-free but not quite debt-free. After dealing with horrible billing company reps, I’ve only got about 1,000$ more to go. This is an issue that really needs to be addressed nationwide as you must really be either a child or elderly to find financial assistance for medical debt!

  4. Joni Rodgers Says:
    May 30th, 2009 at 2:09 PM

    First of all, I love you for talking about this. For reasons I’ll never understand, money and sex are two topics we’re not supposed to care about when we have cancer, even though money and sex are constantly on everyone else’s mind.

    Diagnosed at 32, I still had a thousand dollars left on my student loans, and my husband and I were chipping away the last of our catastrophic bills from a complicated pregnancy. Even with health insurance, the cost of lymphoma treatment (and travel to get it) absolutely overwhelmed us. My long term survival odds weren’t too hot, and I couldn’t stand the thought of leaving my husband with two small children and all that debt. We declared bankruptcy. People act like it’s the same thing as jumping off a cliff, but in reality, it was like coming up for air after 18 months of drowning.

    Two years later, to everyone’s surprise, I was still alive, and we qualified for a mortgage. Ten years hence, we have golden credit, and yup, I’m still here. Jumping off that cliff made it possible for me to start a whole new life as a survivor.

    (I wrote about that and the rest of my adventures in chemo in a book called “Bald in the Land of Big Hair”. Check it out.)

  5. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    May 30th, 2009 at 7:27 PM

    While I am sorry for Joni Roger’s financial struggles, I’m damn glad she documents them in her memoir. We often see on the page and screen cancer stories of movie stars, TV execs, athletes, models, and actresses whose financial means can usually carry the weight of medical bills and then some. By making Everything Changes a travelogue that includes bank tellers, students, admins, and patients who had credit card debt even before diagnosis, I was able to reveal the financial strains most cancer patients are dealing with. I’m really grateful that so many people shared with me the real American story of their cancer experience - including the financial aspect. Kudos to them and to Joni for doing so.

  6. Michael Says:
    June 2nd, 2009 at 8:11 AM

    As I’m reading your book, I am totally aghast at the financial burdens and related stresses young adults are forced to deal with in the United States. I’m a Canadian and we have a public health care system that, has some major flaws, but for now covers almost all cancer treatments. There are very few stories of Canadians having to cut through red tape for the privilege of sitting in a chemo chair. However Canada has been looking to move toward a for-profit medical system for years, but I’m not our government realizes what’s at stake.

  7. RoadOutOfDebt Says:
    May 26th, 2011 at 3:29 AM

    Interesting figures! Over the last years, the number one reason people file for bankruptcy is high medical expenses. In “Medical Bankruptcy in the United States, 2007: Results of a National Study.” Elsevier, Inc., 2009 the figures speak clear: 62, 1% of of all bankruptcy cases filed were caused by high medical expenses!

  8. Free Market Health Care - Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Conservatives, Liberals, Third Parties, Left-Wing, Right-Wing, Congress, President - Page 8 - City-Data Forum Says:
    November 29th, 2012 at 10:42 AM

    [...] every age group in the United States, 18-34 year olds have the most medical debt. These come from Kairol Rosenthal's blog. She was one of the first AYA survivors to serve as an advocate for all of us. Read some of the [...]

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