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Paying for Cancer Care

How to Find Alternative Sources of Income and Financial Support


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After maximizing your health insurance benefits and income options, most people affected by cancer still find unexpected expenses. Depending on your situation, you may have other options for income and financial assistance. These may include charities and community resources, as well as retirement funds, reverse mortgages, and life insurance possibilities.

Due to potential tax consequences and implications for your long-term financial situation, keep in mind that options such as cashing in retirement accounts or life insurance policies should be considered very carefully. It is recommended that you seek the advice of a financial professional or advisor when making these types of decisions. However, for some people who have accrued substantial debt through the course of treatment, these options can provide welcome relief.

National Nonprofit Organizations
There are a variety of nonprofit organizations that may be able to help you cover parts of your medical care and other costs. Different programs and services work differently. Some programs may provide grants to help cover treatment costs or other living expenses. Others may provide a specific service, such as transportation or temporary lodging. Available help will vary from community to community.

Community Resources
Your city, county, or state government may have helpful resources. To find out about programs in your area, contact your local Department of Social Services. You should be able to find the number in the Government section of your local phone book.

Religious groups may also provide assistance for people with cancer. Many will help even if the person is not a member of that particular organization or religion. Some hospitals also have private funds available for patients in need. A social worker at your treatment facility or community center, the United Way, or the American Cancer Society may be able to direct you to specific local resources.

Your city, county, or state government may have helpful resources.

Finally, many cancer survivors have received financial assistance from friends, family, and coworkers. This assistance can take many forms. Sometimes friends are anxious to know what they can do and are excited by the opportunity to host or attend a party, concert, or other event to raise funds for your treatment or living expenses. Coworkers often feel good about being able to contribute to a collection taken up in your name. Saying “yes” to these offers can feel uncomfortable, but it may help to consider how you would feel if you were the one offering assistance.

Retirement Funds
If you have money invested in an IRA, a 401(k), or defined contribution retirement plan, you may be able to borrow from or cash in your plan to help cover your medical expenses. As mentioned earlier, you should consider the implications very carefully, preferably in consultation with a financial advisor. There may be taxes and penalties involved if you access money from your retirement plan.

Life Insurance
If you have a life insurance policy, this may also be a source of funds. Since you probably purchased the policy to provide financial support to your family, these options should be considered carefully and with the advice of a financial advisor. There may be a variety of ways to obtain cash from your life insurance:

  • Loans
    You may be able to get a loan from your insurance company or other lending institution using your life insurance policy if you have a permanent type of policy such as Whole Life or Universal Life.
  • Accelerated death benefit
    You may also have the option of receiving a “pre-death” benefit from your life insurance company if your life expectancy is less than one to two years.
  • Viatical settlements
    This is the sale of a life insurance policy for cash. The insured person sells his or her life insurance policy to a third party for a lump sum cash payment.

Reverse Mortgage
A reverse mortgage (also called a lifetime mortgage) is a loan to a homeowner that allows the owner to get cash from the equity in the property as one lump sum or multiple payments. A reverse mortgage could work well for a person who has few assets other than a home.

The good news is there are financial resources available to help people affected by cancer. Many charities and nonprofits help in small ways, but they do help. It can feel like a full-time job exploring the financial assistance possibilities. Consider asking friends or family members to help you learn more about income and financial resources. In addition, financial advisors and planners can be very helpful as you manage the cost of cancer care.

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To request a free copy of Frankly Speaking About Cancer: Coping with the Cost of Care, from which this article is excerpted, visit www.cancersupportcommunity.org.

Reprinted with permission from Frankly Speaking About Cancer: Coping with the Cost of Care, copyright ©2009 Cancer Support Community. All rights reserved.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2010.