melanie-seatedI always thought saving for a rainy day was a smart idea to safeguard against any rough patches in life, but when you have a chronic illness like cancer and the bills start to pour in, it can become torrential storm. To make it worse, you may end up going head –to-head with your health insurance company over what costs are- and are not-reimbursable.

It’s frustrating that, at a time when the single most important thing in your life is to regain your health, that anyone must also suffer the burden of financial toxicity (extreme financial stress). Yet, it happens more than you realize. It happened to me.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009 I was running a successful wine and food public relations agency, eating at the top restaurants and visiting the world’s great wine regions. Five years later I came to a point where I considered applying for food stamps. I went from the top of the food chain to worrying how I was going to pay for our food.  My income was dried up and I was behind on my house payments. How did this happen to me?

I learned I was not alone and should not be ashamed. I decided to speak out and learn more. According to a University of Michigan study, twenty-five percent of breast cancer survivors reported financial decline during treatment. One in three breast cancer survivors end up unemployed after treatment. Twelve percent of survivors were still paying off medical debt four years after treatment. Women who underwent chemotherapy had a 27 percent higher job loss rate among more than 1500 breast cancer survivors surveyed.

Medical debt is one factor. Health insurance deductibles and out of pocket costs not covered by insurance drain bank accounts. It is very important to understand the fine print with your health insurance provider to make sure you know how to submit correct paperwork. It is also important to work with your hospital or clinic to make sure your treatment options are covered. My hospital’s financial services department required me to sign paperwork guaranteeing I would pay the cost of a specific drug ($4000 per shot) if my health insurance did not cover the expense.

Another reason may be that some women may be unable to work or may need to adjust their work schedules during and after treatment, or their spouses need to take more time off from work to care for them. Their household income is impacted. I continued to work full time but not at full speed. A side effect called chemo brain impacted my memory and concentration despite all my best efforts to eat well, exercise daily and get enough sleep.

Some women simply cannot or do not want to go back to the lives they led B.C. (before cancer). After 20 years of running a successful company, I found going back to the same pace and type of work unfulfilling and stressful. I closed my business to pursue a writing career and train as a health and nutrition coach.

Dealing with the financial fallout of cancer treatment is something women may be hesitant to address or discuss. You may feel ashamed or just lost and not sure where to turn for help. Your first priority is healing physically and emotionally.  But the reality is many of us need to find help and make lifestyle adjustments to upgrade the quality of our lives to stay healthy while downsize our cost of living to manage financially. It is nothing to be ashamed of, and it is a sign of strength to face the situation and seek help.

The high cost of illness cannot be avoided, but there are precautionary measures you can take:

  1. Research and get the best health insurance you can afford and make sure you fully understand all major medical, out of pocket, co-pays and in-network/out-of-network provisions. I provide a detail checklist for this in my book,Getting Things Off My Chest, because no one should have financial fears further impact their health.

second-addition-cover-for-getting-things-off-with-awards-200x3002. Maintain a healthy lifestyle: manage your weight, exercise daily, avoid smoking, drink alcohol in moderation, wear sunscreen, get regular medical checkups and necessary screenings for your age and family history and try to relax more and stress less. This means: Put your self-health first

3. Put aside money every month in a savings account for that “rainy day” because when an illness strikes, the medical bills start pouring in.

4. If you are diagnosed with a major illness like breast cancer, consider contacting your credit card companies and bank to discuss raising your borrowing limits if you need more money and negotiating loan payments if you need to conserve.

5. Contact your city and state’s Department of Social Services to ask what programs or types of financial aid are offered by the state you live in. This includes Medicaid if you qualify financially.

6. If you are taking prescription medication as part of your treatment, inquire whether there is a generic alternative for your “designer drug” or options for a lower cost pharmacy. For example, I take the aromatese inihibitor, Arimidex. My out of pocket co pay was $70 at my local pharmacy in New York. By visiting the drug manufacturer’s website and inquiring about ways to lower my prescription cost I found another pharmacy in Florida that ships my medication to me. The out of pocket co-pay is $30.

No matter how hard your financial burden may be, do not cut corners on your health. If you are taking post treatment medication don’t discontinue them because you can’t afford it. Discuss options with your medical provider and also with your health insurance company.

You may find yourself needing to cut corners on living expenses: spending less on non-essential items, cooking at home, going out less.  But whatever you do, avoid cutting corners on your health: making better food choices and regular exercise are important to maintaining a healthier you.

If you haven’t learned it yet: Spending money to stay healthy far outweighs the cost of being sick.

Here are some other helpful resources if you have been diagnosed with breast cancer:

The Pink Fund. The Pink Fund distributes short-term financial aid, for basic living expenses, on behalf of breast cancer patients who have lost all or a part of their income during active treatment. Payments (capped at $3000) are made directly to the patient’s creditors. (877) 234 PINK (7465)

My Hope Chest. My Hope Chest is a 501(c)3 social service organization focused on reconstructive surgery for uninsured or under insured women. (727) 488-0320

Living Beyond Breast Cancer Provides very good resources for women living with breast cancer, including coping with finances. (888) 753-LBBC (5222)

CancerCare CancerCare provides free professional and educational counseling and programs, practical help and financial assistance. (800) 813-HOPE (813-4673)

Cancer and Careers: Cancer and Careers strives to eliminate fear and uncertainty for working people with cancer, providing essential tools and information for employees with cancer.