Cancer is costly. From the day you are diagnosed, the mental, emotional and physical toll grows. It may cost you your freedom, if only temporarily, as future dreams are put on pause.
It may show up as the loss of an organ, maybe your breasts, maybe your hair. It could cost you your fertility health, intimacy or social connections. For far too many, it costs them their life.
And if those costs are not great enough, it also costs you financially. Despite living in a country with universal health care, many people in Canada are paying out-of-pocket for lifesaving and life-enhancing products and services. Things like testing, medications, prostheses, assistive products, post-operative supplies and caregiver costs. Then there are the travel costs that many in this vast country face, particularly those in rural and remote communities. This includes transportation to and from regular oncology appointments, chemotherapy and radiation, and accommodations for those travelling especially far.
These are costs that hit hard, especially in today’s economy as the cost-of-living soars and millions of Canadians struggle to make ends meet. The reality is that cancer isn’t something we plan for — and certainly not something most people budget for. So when a diagnosis hits, it hits hard financially.
Studies show that people in Canada spend about $260 per month on out-of-pocket costs. In a recent Angus Reid survey, 90 per cent of respondents say that a sudden cancer diagnosis would impact their household finances and 30 per cent said they would have to go into debt to pay for the out-of-pocket costs of a cancer diagnosis.
Imagine having to bear all these new expenses without your full salary. It can take between 26 and 37 weeks to treat and begin to recover from some of the most common types of cancer. In the meantime, you may be unable to work. Thankfully, the federal government recently extended the Employment Insurance (EI) sickness benefit to 26 weeks for eligible employees so they can be paid while taking much-needed time off. But the benefit only covers up to 55 per cent of your earnings and it doesn’t mean your job is secure. Shockingly, in almost every province and territory employers have no obligation to guarantee long-term job security for their employees that take extended time off work to deal with a medical illness like cancer. For example, in Ontario, British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, an employee’s job only has to be protected for an abysmal three days, after which they can be let go. The same Angus Reid survey found that one in three Canadians fear losing their job if they were to undergo cancer treatment.
On World Cancer Day on Feb. 10, the Union for International Cancer Control announced a mission to “close the care gap.” They say that who you are and where you live can mean the difference between life and death when it comes to cancer. We’d like to believe Canada is excluded from this global conversation, but the truth is that cancer disproportionately affects communities that are underserved in Canada and the issue of affordability is felt more severely among those who are marginalized in so many other ways.
Shaving dollars off the price tag of a cancer diagnosis won’t fix everything, but it does lift some weight off the shoulders of the over 1.5 million people in Canada living with or after cancer. So how do we make inroads? Certainly, the onus doesn’t just fall on one person or one group. It takes all of us. It takes governments extending the length of sickness-leave job protection to align with the federal EI sickness benefit. It takes charities stepping in to provide support that would otherwise be costly to the patient. It takes employers looking out for their employees’ health and well-being, and not just their bottom line. It takes people with greater security and means lending a hand, whether through their time volunteering or their wallets donating to organizations that support patients. It takes every one of us caring for those in our community in need, because one day that could be us.
Nothing big gets solved by one person. It takes a society.
One of the greatest gifts you can give is your time. By putting some of your free time towards volunteering, you’re helping people get those essential services — like a ride to treatment — at no cost. If you know someone going through a cancer diagnosis, help ease some of that burden by bringing over a cooked meal, offering to help with household chores, child care or lending a listening ear. And if you want to see the system make changes to reduce the cost of cancer care, you can lend your voice. Add your signature to a letter to government at cancer.ca/costofcancer and show them there’s a whole community who care about cancer, and who expect better.
Cancer comes with a great enough price tag. Let’s make the financial cost of cancer one less thing to worry about.
Andrea Seale is CEO of the Canadian Cancer Society.
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