Written by Head for the Cure Ambassador Angela Merckle
I remember one fall day in 2015, my physician saying, “Your brain tumor has grown and we must intervene with treatment”. I was quick to elect for radiation therapy given its effectiveness in destroying cancer cells with no regard to anything outside of remaining focused on a successful treatment.
It wasn’t soon after that the bills started rolling in. Although I had employer-based insurance, there was a sudden level of financial stress pouring in. Dealing with a new brain tumor diagnosis is enough in itself, but add the medical bills to it and you begin to think you will never recover. The hospital graciously gave me contacts for financial counselors and a folder filled with resources.
I made an appointment with the financial counselor immediately and, believe it or not, he confirmed there wasn’t much they could do for me financially. I remember being in that office and crying with both my sister and mother by my side. I was a single mother at the time and living with very little excess financially. He explained how I would not qualify for assistance because of my age and life expectancy for my diagnosis. How could this be? I thought about the option of taking short term disability during my treatment, however, after speaking with the financial counselor, I simply could not risk the pay cut. I had to sacrifice my well-being during treatment to continue to work full time to even afford the treatment at all.
I explored the option of payment plans available to help those in need, but I soon learned that they are not willing to work with you forever. I was sent to collections. I was naïve to think the diagnosis would allow some grace given the time of desperation. As I continued to exhaust all resources, I quickly learned just how little help there is to ease the financial strain.
I could no longer maintain the payment plan and debt collectors were beginning to hound me. My follow-up MRI scan revealed the radiation was successful and the tumor shrunk, but now I was questioning if I could even afford the 3-month follow-up plan I was on. At a time when I should be celebrating, I often would ask myself, “Should I have elected for treatment?”. One diagnosis and treatment was enough to financially wipe me clean of everything I had worked for. I was forced to file for bankruptcy. Even when speaking with my lawyer he mentioned, “Will this be an on-going monitoring for the rest of your life, or do you see it ending?”.
Apparently, if there is no end to it, you will constantly be struggling financially. As you can imagine, that left me with little hope for getting back on my feet one day. Again, fighting back tears, I succumbed to filing as no other option was available. As I signed the bankruptcy paperwork, he too needed a form of payment. I could not even afford the lawyer there to help relieve me of my financial burdens this brain tumor and treatment had cost me. Because I could not pay him in full that day, I was forced to then set up a payment plan over many years. How ironic that I could not pay my medical bills, however, ended up on a payment plan to file bankruptcy.
I must admit this whole process left me angry. I thought, couldn’t there be a ‘get out of jail free’ card for those going through cancer much like you see in the Monopoly game? I didn’t ask for this nor had planned for this. We all plan for retirement. Should we also plan for a possible life changing diagnosis requiring treatment? I know I am not the only one facing a financial struggle and I also know many people going through similar circumstances who are forced to make medical decisions based on their financial needs.