The Hidden Cost of Cancer
Social worker Teresa Skarlicki sees patients foregoing the best treatment available because they cannot afford to take time away from work or pay for the extra travel involved.
Three years ago when Linda Beck’s joints started locking up — it took two hands to hold a cup of coffee — and she couldn’t get through her day without having a nap, she thought it was regular aging. But bloodwork her doctor ordered to have redone several times (as he didn’t think it could be right) showed it was much more dire.
Within eight hours of those tests, Linda was told she had advanced Acute Myeloid Leukemia with a 50 per cent chance of six month survival. By the next day, she was taken by ambulance from her Lloydminster home to Edmonton where she started chemo immediately. After several rounds of treatment, she was considered in remission and was back at work five months later. But that wasn’t the end of her story.
Every two weeks, Linda went for blood work and when she realized her numbers were continuing to decline, she called her doctor and asked him to graph the results (“I still have that graph, tucked away in my bible”). Soon she was back in Edmonton for more chemotherapy. This time, she faced a bone marrow transplant and had to move to Calgary for the next eight months (a liver infection kept her there two months longer than most transplant patients).
With no income from her work and paying the mortgage on her Lloydminster home, Linda’s savings depleted quickly. Maintaining a second place to live in Calgary, the only place she could receive the transplant, was impossible.
Thanks to help from the Alberta Cancer Foundation Patient Financial Assistance Program, Linda was able to rent a condo across from the cancer centre during her transplant and her near daily trips for blood transfusions.
Her recovery was difficult. She couldn’t eat for seven days and stayed in bed for almost two weeks. Her siblings and son—Linda lost her then-teenage daughter 25 years ago in an accident—and precious granddaughters were by her side. Linda thought often about the donors that made it possible for her to return to her life.
I find it hard to put into words what donors have given me,” says Linda through tears. “I went from a point where I was so weak, I couldn’t stand on my own without the help of two people and now am working full time and living on my own. Donors gave me my independence and dignity.
Linda has since downsized to a rented one-bedroom space in Lloydminster, working at Home Sense for a quarter of what she used to earn. She drives to Edmonton every three months for regular check ups and donors have helped cover the cost of that travel when she has difficulty making ends meet.
Social worker Teresa Skarlicki, who Linda calls “an absolute angel,” says it is hard for people to ask for help and sadly, she sees Albertans who will forego the best treatment option in exchange for going back to work early or paying the travel costs to receive it.
Many people are just trying to make it through their treatment—it becomes a case of sheer survival and when you add financial difficulties into the mix, they tend to lose hope,” say Teresa. “When we can tell these people that we are going to help with part of a mortgage payment or with groceries for two to three months, we offer that ray of hope.
In the last year, the demand for the Patient Financial Assistance Program has almost doubled, but not just in the oil and gas industry. Since people must qualify based on financial need to ensure the most effective use of donor dollars, Teresa sees a range of applications. One mortgage broker had only completed one contract in the previous six months and then was diagnosed with cancer. A caterer hadn’t booked a job in four months and was looking for other financial options when cancer hit. “We’re seeing more people who usually could manage their financial situation are losing their safety net,” says Skarlicki. “When we tell them other Albertans have stepped up to help, they are shocked and so relieved that people care.”
Linda agrees. “I can’t tell you what the Alberta Cancer Foundation has done for me and my family. I will continue to work towards total independence and I feel so blessed.”
Contact – Psychosocial/Spiritual Department, Patient Resource Office
Calgary – Tom Baker Cancer Center – telephone: +1 403-355-3207
Edmonton – Westmount Office – telephone: +1 780-643-4304