What to Know About Financial Planning During Cancer Treatment

An older woman sits on a coach looking a tablet.

Cancer can be very expensive. And while money is the last thing you want to worry about as you navigate your healthcare, taking pragmatic steps to prepare your finances can help you weather the storm, lower your stress, and avoid “financial toxicity.” Here’s where to start:

Get financial planning help

Financial planning around cancer is often incredibly complex, so don’t try to do it alone! If you already have a financial advisor, get them involved immediately to begin planning your finances for the coming weeks, months, and years. If you don’t, you may be able to get support through the Patient Advocate Foundation or be connected with a certified financial planner, courtesy of the nonprofit organization Family Reach. Every person of every income is eligible. Importantly, too, you can connect with financial counselors through our site. 

Your healthcare team should also be able to connect you with a social worker (or even what’s called a “financial social worker”), navigator, patient advocate, or financial services planner. These professionals can be crucial in helping you project the costs of your treatment plan, maximize your insurance benefits, and cut down unnecessary spending.

Research your benefits

If you have health insurance (including Medicare, Medicaid, or Medi-Cal), it’s time to get fluent in your benefits. That begins with a form called a Summary of Benefits and Coverage (SBC), which your insurance company will provide at your request. (Here’s an example.) Look for specific language about which treatments are covered and how much support your insurance is required to provide. If you’re unclear about anything, ask your insurance provider for an explanation. 

If you don’t have health insurance, you may still be able to get it. Consider:

  • Your own or your spouse’s employer or union. Even if you’ve recently lost your job, the COBRA program can let you continue your healthcare coverage, as long as you elect to do so during the 60-day window just after you have lost your job.
  • Medicare or Medicaid. Medicare covers people 65 years or older and those who have been disabled for 29 months or more and Medicaid covers low-income people.
  • Affordable Care Act  insurance through your state’s marketplace. Note that you’ll need to sign up during open enrollment—typically October or November through January.
  • Private health insurance that you purchase on your own, directly from a health insurance company. This is typically quite expensive and you will want to be aware of all the terms and conditions of the policy before you buy, but it may also be an option.

If you can’t get insurance, you may be able to get financial assistance from your hospital, your county government, or various national organizations. (See the final section of this article.)

Calculate your expenses

Like we said above, cancer treatment can be costly. But forecasting these costs ahead of time can help you prepare. There are three big areas where new expenses will crop up:

  1. Out-of-pocket medical costs. Even if you have insurance, you’ll also spend money out-of-pocket. That includes your deductible, copays, and coinsurance.
  2. Special cancer costs. Some cancer-related expenses won’t be covered by health insurance. For instance, you might want  to hire a house cleaner, buy special cosmetics, or hire additional childcare. These are indirect costs of cancer, but they’re very important.
  3. New living expenses. Cancer treatment can spike your normal cost of living. You may need to travel a lot more (to and from your treatment center), make changes in your home to make you comfortable, buy special supplies, have groceries delivered, and so on. 

It can feel intimidating to see these numbers add up, but make your estimates on the larger side. If you end up spending less than you planned, that’s not a problem.

Make a budget

Like other major life events (college, weddings, etc.), cancer treatment is easier with a nitty-gritty plan to guide your daily finances. And that’s easy to do, now that you’ve calculated your benefits and expenses. 

To get started, you can try this simple worksheet (downloadable within the text of the article) from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. If you’re ready to get a little more in depth, you can try YNAB (You Need A Budget)—a budgeting app that’s not specific to cancer treatment but is simple, widely used, and flexible. For more background knowledge, you can also read these through guides from the Association of Community Cancer Centers and Cancer Support Community.

Of course, all of this will be easier with the help of a personal financial planner. But managing finances on your own is possible.

Consider your work

Some people keep full time jobs throughout their cancer treatment. Others reduce their schedules to part-time. Some people stop working entirely. Some find that work helps them retain a sense of normalcy during an unstable time. Others find that it’s just not possible with their symptoms. In other words, there’s no right or wrong way to approach work during your cancer journey. This is a very personal topic and it’s important to evaluate what is right for you at this time.

If you do continue working, your employer is legally obligated to make “reasonable accommodations” to help you do your job. This could mean moving your desk to be closer to a bathroom, adjusting your schedule to work around your treatment, or reassigning you to a different role that meets your health needs.

If you’re unable to work due to cancer, you may be eligible for disability insurance. Many employers offer Short-Term Disability Insurance (STDI), which can pay out benefits for 3-6 months while you undergo treatment. Some employers also offer Long-Term Disability Insurance (LTD) which can support you for years, or even decades—but this is rarer, and the benefits are often not enough to sustain patients over time.

You may also be eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)—a government program that supports disabled workers. After you stop working, there will be a five-month waiting period before SSDI begins paying benefits. So even if you don’t need it yet, talk to a social worker now and get the process in motion.

Let loved ones help

Fatigue is the most common side effect of cancer treatment, which can make it tough to stay on top of your finances. Consider getting help from a trusted friend or family member to collect and organize your financial documents. Having one person in charge of expenses, receipts, and insurance documents can be a huge relief!

If you need another person’s help paying bills and handling day-to-day money matters, you may also want to consider giving your helper financial power of attorney. This is a legal status that grants another person full control over your money. Note that this is a very powerful position for a loved one to be in and this decision should be made with great care.

Ask for financial assistance

If you’re worried about your ability to make ends meet during your cancer treatment, there are many organizations that can help—starting with your hospital. Ask your healthcare team to speak with a financial counselor, patient advocate, or social worker, and share your concerns. Our team of Care Navigators may also be able to connect you with resources. You might also want to explore these groups:

The content on this website is intended to provide the best possible information for you, but should not be considered—or used as a substitute for—medical advice. If you have questions about your diagnosis or treatment, please contact your health care provider(s). For questions or comments about this content, please email us at [email protected].