For some, the financial stress of cancer feels worse than the illness itself
Every 15 minutes, someone in Ireland is told: "You have cancer." It is devastating news. This year alone, around 35,000 people will hear it.
Happily, a growing number of these people will survive the illness and return to full health and a normal life. This is thanks to new drugs and treatments and the fact that our cancer service is now very well organised and, despite the recession, continues to get the public money it needs.
For the patient, a cancer journey is very hard. Life is turned upside down. Apart from being sick, he or she has to face the fact that they have cancer - a very serious illness, which is possibly even life-threatening.
At the same time comes the stress of managing the financial fallout.
The massive increase in demand for the Irish Cancer Society's Financial Support scheme over the last few years has alerted us to the increasing financial burden on patients and their families of having cancer. This year already, we have spent €1.2m of the funds donated to us by the public on supporting patients and their families to pay bills such as heating, travel and parking for hospital visits and childcare.
Every year since the recession hit, demand has been increasing. Last year saw the biggest increase, when demand went up by almost 30pc.
As a charity which is 96pc funded from donations from the public, we simply cannot sustain this level of increased demand. The Irish Cancer Society also runs a free night-nursing service for cancer patients, major cancer-research projects, a free information service, a volunteer driving service and many, many other activities.
As a result, we have had to cut the amount we are giving, with the exception of families where a child has cancer.
To get a full picture of what cancer patients are dealing with and where the financial pressure is greatest, we commissioned Millward Brown to carry out a survey of patients and their carers.
The results are staggering.
The average additional cost to a cancer patient is €862 a month. Separately, those who were working when diagnosed were hit with a cut in their income, on average, of €1,400 per month.
It is hard to imagine how most of us could sustain such a demand on our income.
One of our patients, a young woman who had to close her own business, said the stress caused by managing the cost of cancer was greater than the stress caused by having the illness.
Why is this?
Many people who believe that cancer patients are fully supported in the public hospital system will be surprised and distressed to realise that patients are being put under such pressure and that for many, having cancer results in a financial crisis.
People don't plan to have cancer, just like people don't plan to lose their job, for instance. But when something as catastrophic as this happens, we need support. Obviously, if it is cancer, as it is such a serious illness, the priority must be to treat the patient, urgently and appropriately. We are managing this much better than we did in the past and it is showing results; more people are surviving cancer than ever before.
We run Daffodil Centres in every cancer centre and in some other hospitals too. They are staffed by a cancer nurse, supported by volunteers, and they can give the patient and their family advice and a special booklet, which includes information on any social welfare supports which they may be entitled to claim.
Our financial-support scheme is reached through the medical social worker in the hospital and is there to help people who are facing bills as a result of having cancer, which they are simply unable to manage.
It is meant to be a last resort but the need for it is great and growing.
So what needs to be done?
Firstly, cancer patients who don't have a medical card should get one. This means free GP visits and free drugs (for the most part), which would mean an immediate saving.
Hospitals treating cancer patients should arrange free parking for them.
Hospital appointments should be arranged as far as possible to cut the number of journeys the patient has to make and therefore the cost of travelling.
Social welfare supports should be easier to access and the needs of the self-employed, who can suffer an immediate and catastrophic drop in income, should be taken into account by the Department of Social Protection.
And finally, we want this issue on the agenda of the Steering Group currently drawing up a new National Cancer Strategy. We want it to be considered urgently. It is time that the financial impact of having cancer is recognised and acted upon.