As financial advisors, we help our clients to consider and plan – not only for their own goals but also for some of life’s serious “what ifs.” What if you want to retire early? What if you want to buy a vacation home? What if your child is planning to attend graduate school? What if you need long-term care? What if you are raising a young family and you get cancer?
That’s exactly what happened to my husband and me. Our only child at the time had just turned 3; my husband had just finished law school and was beginning his career as an attorney; we had just purchased a new house. He felt healthy and looked great. With his diagnosis of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at the age of 35, suddenly everything we enjoyed seemed uncertain.
Our first concern was making sure he made it to his next birthday. We faced a “new normal” of chemotherapy, scans, doctor visits, needles, and a flood of new information about blood counts, diet, and medicines. I had to move forward in addressing the impact of this new reality – not only on his physical health but on our short-and long-term financial well-being as well. Almost immediately, medical bills began arriving and I quickly realized our emergency fund would not last as long as I had planned. As the medical bills rolled in, my mind raced to plan for the horrible new “what ifs” that suddenly occurred to me: What if we didn’t have adequate life or disability insurance? What if our wills were not up to date?
While every patient, caretaker, and experience is unique, I have learned a few things that I hope will help lighten the load for someone else dealing with a cancer diagnosis.
Find someone who can be your financial advocate.
This could be a family member or close friend. Let him or her do the heavy lifting of talking to the financial department at the hospital, doctors’ office, and the insurance company.
Do not put any of your medical bills on a credit card.
If you are having trouble making the full payment, call the financial department at the hospital or doctor’s office and ask for an interest-free monthly payment plan. Some medical bills can be negotiated to a lower amount, so it never hurts to ask.
Review all of your estate documents.
Update documents if needed. This would include having a recent Power of Attorney, Health Care Directive and Will. If you do not have all of these documents, contact an estate attorney to have them prepared.
Review beneficiary designations.
Review designations on all retirement, Payable on Death (POD)/ Transfer on Death (TOD) accounts, annuities and life insurance policies. Beneficiary designations supersede your will, so even if you have an updated will, it is important to review who you have listed as beneficiaries.
Organize all financial documents.
Include estate documents and insurance policies (life, disability) and put them in a safe and secure place where your executor and power of attorney will have easy access to them if the need arises. This also includes usernames and passwords for important websites.
Defer Federal Direct Student Loans.
Thanks to the Deferment for Active Cancer Treatment Act signed in to law in 2018, cancer patients can defer repaying federal direct student loans for the duration of cancer treatment and for 6 months afterward. Interest will not accrue on these loans during an active cancer treatment deferment.
Look for resources.
These vary depending on the specific type of cancer diagnosis, individual needs, and location. There are financial assistance programs to help with copays, prescriptions, basic living expenses, maid services, lodging, and travel.
My husband is now a cancer survivor; chemotherapy, scans and the bills which accompanied them are no longer a normal part of our everyday experience. Nothing could have completely prepared us for a cancer diagnosis, but we hope that what we’ve experienced and learned will encourage and help others facing this unexpected journey.