“You’re Cancer Free!” (So Why Do You Feel So Conflicted?)

National Young Adult Cancer Awareness Week is an annual, community-driven opportunity to highlight the needs, issues and challenges of young adults diagnosed with cancer between the ages of 15–39 and to spread the word about the amazing work being done by patient advocates and healthcare champions on their behalf. This blog series serves to raise the profile of the issues and make it as easy as possible for supporters to add their voices to the Critical Mass community.

By The SAMFund for Young Adult Survivors of Cancer

When your oncologist said those three words to you, you likely felt more emotions at once than you thought were possible: relief, disbelief, joy, guilt, and overwhelmed on top of it all. You’d just been given a “new lease on life,” but you may in fact have felt really, really angry. Or scared. Or both. One of the reasons is that you’re probably broke.

Once cancer treatment is behind you, it’s still a huge presence in your life for months and years afterwards. At Surviving and Moving Forward: The SAMFund for Young Adult Survivors of Cancer, we have seen for more than a decade how it impacts survivors emotionally, physically, and our central focus: financially.

Nearly two-thirds of cancer survivors fall into medical debt as a result of their treatments, a study from the Washington National Institute for Wellness Solutions found. The report’s findings indicate that young people — survivors younger than 50 — have a particularly difficult time paying for treatment. More than half (53%) said they couldn’t get the care they needed without financial help.

While the direct and indirect costs of treatment are high for everyone, young adult survivors (YAs) face unique struggles due to their age and life stage (no savings, limited employment history, fresh student loans). The short-term struggles may also include the following:

  • Reintegration: it can be difficult to find a place for yourself if you’ve finished school but haven’t started working yet
  • Living expenses: You may not be able to afford to live on your own, so you’re catapulted backwards and are living at home again
  • Health insurance: you may be too old to be on your parents’ plan but too young to afford your own
  • Employment: If you’re exhausted from treatment, it may be hard to hold down a full-time job. Without regular income, you may be unable to pay for the very items you need to help get back on your feet: clothes for job interviews, a gym membership to keep you healthy, mental health treatment for post-treatment anxiety and stress.

Over the long term, as physical effects subside and you come to terms with your illness and survivorship, the financial impact becomes even more insidious. While you’re undergoing treatment, you often look different than you did before cancer, and people can understand your situation. Then you start to look more like everyone else and people think it’s done, you’re better, and the worst is over. But you can’t see someone’s financial situation just by looking at them.

Jennifer, a breast cancer survivor from Alabama, felt the long-term effects of cancer treatment. When she applied for a SAMFund grant for medical debt repayment, her credit was shot from taking out loans and maxing out credit cards (something we urge cancer survivors not to do, but they don’t know of any other options at the time and are desperate to make ends meet, so who can blame them?). The ability to buy a house or car 10, 20 or more years down the road can be affected by the financial toxicity that cancer treatment has caused.

Another SAMFund alum, Chad, a testicular cancer survivor from Georgia, had to change his career completely as a result of his diagnosis and treatment. He had been working a physically strenuous job pre-diagnosis and wasn’t able to continue after treatment, but had no money left to undergo training so that he could switch fields. With a little bit of help from The SAMFund, he has now started his own business in the technology field.

Family building is one of the most common challenges for YAs (whose fertility was likely impacted by treatment), and one of the most common requests seen through our grants program. Pre-treatment, YAs must decide prematurely whether or not they want children in the future and need money — a lot of it — to freeze their eggs or bank their sperm. Post-treatment, the costs are exponentially higher if a YA chooses to undergo IVF or begin the adoption process. The biological clock for these young men and women stops ticking way before it was expected to — and they are put in the unfair position of having to drain their life savings in order to start a family.

The bottom line is that #cancerisntfree. We are proud to be working with Critical Mass to help this group of survivors feel empowered to move forward without guilt, and that means making it okay for them to reach out for help.

Originally published at criticalmass.org on April 6, 2015.

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