In 1974, Betty Ford changed the future of cancer. Perhaps known best for making her struggles with alcoholism public a few years later, this forward-thinking woman, who spoke openly about her mastectomy for breast cancer at a time when the disease was still a whispered topic even within families, was groundbreaking. It brought the reality of breast cancer into the public eye and into the forefront of many people’s minds for the first time in history. This changed how cancer was treated socially, politically, and medically. By speaking out, Betty Ford empowered women to speak openly about the disease and make their own choices about their treatments and their bodies. She brought a global awareness to the disease that exploded the discussions in the medical community, opened up floodgates of research funding, and expanded treatment options.
“The Big C” is weighing heavily on my mind right now. On Mother’s Day, my daughter-in-law was diagnosed with colon cancer and is now undergoing treatment. And in February my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer which led to two lumpectomies and, on Monday, a mastectomy. Having dealt with it myself when I had my own battle with breast cancer two decades ago, I can see how times have changed—not in the treatment of cancer necessarily (it seems amazingly medieval to me that we’re still removing body parts and poisoning our bodies to try to eradicate this disease), but in its sheer prevalence. Cancer—breast and other forms—has reached epidemic levels. The American Cancer Society has estimated 1,658,370 new cases of cancer in the US in 2015 alone. Just under a quarter million of those cases are attributed to breast cancer. Most of us have either experienced cancer first hand, within our family, or among our closest circle of friends. A decade ago, I felt people at work looked at me differently because of my cancer. I felt tainted. And whether or not that was accurate or I was projecting how I felt myself, a woman dealing with breast cancer today is more likely to get the reaction of, “Oh, you too?”
In his Pulitzer Prize Winning book The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee calls cancer “the defining plague of our generation.” Of course, no matter how common it has become, the impact of a cancer diagnosis can feel devastating, both to the patient and those who love them. My client Cindy is dealing with a terrible diagnosis, and it’s unlikely she will live another 12 months, but she can’t get herself to bring up early retirement to her husband. “He can’t face it,” she said. “Whenever I talk about leaving work, he seems to panic with the reality of the future. I just can’t do it to him.” Another client, Louis, came to me after his cancer went into remission. Two years ago, soon after his surgery, he and his wife splurged on a $60,000 luxury vacation with their whole family. “We couldn’t afford it. I know that now,” he says. “But at the time, all that mattered was enjoying every moment.”
When I’m helping my clients through these issues, I’m struck by the financial impact cancer has on the lives of the patient and those around them. We all owe Betty Ford a huge thank you for changing how cancer is viewed, talked about, and accepted. But knowing that the lifetime risk of developing cancer is now slightly less than 1 in 2 for men and a little more than 1 in 3 for women*, there’s one more big change that needs to take place: how we view and manage cancer from a financial planning perspective. And it needs to start today.
Solid financial planning before a cancer diagnosis is critical because once you’ve been diagnosed, it may be impossible to obtain the insurance you need to help you through treatment or, in the worst case, help your family in case of your death. When cancer strikes, money is the last thing anyone wants to think about, but Cindy and Louis are great examples of how our emotions can derail our financial decision-making—even when it’s more important than ever to make wise choices about your money. Here are a few questions to get you started today:
Do you have sufficient life insurance coverage?
Once a cancer (or other diagnosis) comes your way, it may not be possible to get a policy.
Is the family caregiver in your family insured?
In families where only one parent works outside the home, many neglect to get a life insurance for the at-home caregiver.
Are you taking the maximum available disability insurance (DI) at work?
The majority of workers sign up for only the basic, employer-provided coverage. The cost for additional coverage is often minimal, and well worth the added security.
If you don’t receive disability insurance through your employer, do you have private disability insurance?
Insurance is vital to provide living wages in case of a disability.
Do you have long-term care (LTC) insurance? Don’t assume LTC insurance is only for the elderly.
Getting a policy in your 40s or 50s is affordable, and protects you at the time in life when many cancers are found.
Mitch Albom, the bestselling author of Tuesdays with Morrie, wrote, “Mortality means you don’t have forever to work things out. You can live your life unexamined but then on the last day you’re going to think: ‘I’ve left things a little late.’” I urge you: don’t leave things a little late. Take care of the things today that can have a major impact on your own finances should you become ill (with cancer or anything else that knocks you to your knees) down the road. Having a plan in place can help make money the last thing you have to think about at the time, and give you and those you love the time and energy to focus on each other and, hopefully, getting well again.
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