I'll never forget the shock when my brother-in-law, Billy — an avid athlete and outdoorsman — visited a doctor for his heartburn, only to learn he had stage 4 esophageal cancer. He fought the disease hard, but it claimed him eight months later, leaving behind my sister and teenage nieces.
An attorney, Billy had always handled the family finances, and my sister scrambled to understand what she needed to do while managing the flood of incoming medical bills. She was lucky enough to have the resources to access a good financial planner, ensuring a measure of economic stability to weather the emotional and financial storm. But many Americans lack access to a planner, and for them a cancer diagnosis can trigger a financial catastrophe that has negative consequences on their emotional and physical health.
Researchers have found that financial issues are the second most frequent source of distress identified by cancer patients. They've even coined a name for this: "Cancer-Related Financial Toxicity" (CRFT), manifested by a mix of severe economic stress, depression and anxiety that can worsen the underlying health condition. Even with private health insurance or coverage through Medicare or Medicaid, families are at substantial risk of a financial disaster. They experience not only a major increase in daily expenses but often a significant loss of income due to the patient's and caregiver's inability to maintain full-time work. The impact on patients can be grim:
• 38% postpone or do not fill drug prescriptions to reduce costs
• 37% cut back on groceries
• 36% deplete their savings
• 24% borrow against their retirement funds
One study found cancer patients are nearly three times more likely to go bankrupt than people of a similar age without cancer. Another found that cancer patients in bankruptcy were 80% more likely to die from any cause than other people with cancer.
Objective, expert financial advice and planning can benefit these patients. Scott Ramsey, a health economist, researcher and physician at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, recommended in a Washington Post interview that all patients diagnosed with cancer be assessed for financial risk — and for those deemed at-risk, that health-care providers "be very aggressive with getting them to financial planning [and] to patient assistance programs to reduce their likelihood of having financial devastation."
The Foundation for Financial Planning is helping to drive a national response to the problem through the Pro Bono for Cancer Campaign, our signature initiative to develop and support efforts around the country to connect cancer patients and their families to free, quality financial advice. We've raised significant seed funding, allocated more than $445,000 in grants and partnered with other nonprofits such as Family Reach, which specializes in helping people with cancer across the nation, and the Financial Planning Association, which is working to recruit CFP professionals to volunteer for the effort. We've funded an infrastructure — spearheaded by Family Reach — that includes a special online CFP training (offering CE credit) and a digital platform for connecting planners to patients.
Since the effort launched earlier this year, dozens of CFP volunteers have been matched to families in need. As the program grows, we hope to reach many hundreds of low- to middle-income families to assist them with pro bono financial planning, with most of the engagements conducted virtually so we can better match the supply of patients to available volunteers. Outcomes will be measured and reported by some of the leading researchers on CRFT, enabling us to refine the program over time.
To meet our ambitious goals, we need help from the financial planning community. Your time and support can assist people like Mike and Leslie Longo, whose comfortable middle-class life with their three kids was upended when Mike received a diagnosis of a rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma at just 32 years old. Mike has faced grueling treatment and relapses, and his family has struggled to pay basic expenses, including their mortgage and utility bills. As part of our Pro Bono for Cancer effort, the Longos have been connected to a volunteer financial planner who is helping them manage their financial challenges, serving as a trusted adviser as they chart their future path.
Thousands of families like the Longos are currently struggling to navigate the financial toxicity of cancer on their own, providing the financial planning profession with an extraordinary opportunity to help. Will you join us? Find out how you can pitch in by visiting ProBono4Cancer.org.
Jon Dauphiné is chief executive of the Foundation for Financial Planning.