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How to cope with the financial stress of cancer

Cancer is stressful enough. Add to that the worry of how you’re going to pay for your care and it can feel like you’re drowning. If everything in your life seems like just too much right now, stop for a moment and commit to regaining a sense of control. After all, managing your financial stress is just as important as managing your treatment, as stress may inhibit healing at the time you need it most.

Steve White, Director of Mind-Body Medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) outside Phoenix, shares his insight into financial stress among cancer patients and offers advice on how to cope with it.

How does financial stress manifest itself among patients?

Financial stress is among the greatest of all the stressors that patients have. They wonder, “How am I going to pay for my cancer treatment? How am I going to take time off work?” They have to tap into vacation time and short-term disability, or take days off without pay. Some people aren’t working or can’t work. For those who have insurance, it’s rare to have a policy with complete coverage. Most insurance plans require patients to cover 20 percent of their costs, which can add up. It puts a lot of stress on people. Patients not only worry about how they’ll pay for their treatment but how they’ll make ends meet at home. People get a little anxious about it. They might experience anxiety or depression.

How can counseling help patients deal with financial stress?

Financial stress usually comes up at some point. Sometimes we ask our patients, “What does it mean to you that you can’t pay your bills?” That might open up other issues.

As therapists, we try to open doors, open possibilities for our patients and get them to think outside the box. I had one patient who was paying more than the minimum payment for her mortgage. She decided to put that money toward her health care instead. I try to give my patients different options and be a guide. Maybe there are other ways to handle it, maybe there are grants available or they can pay the hospital back slowly but surely.

What techniques can patients practice on their own to cope with financial stress?

There are several ways patients can manage their stress. They can make sure they’re getting enough sleep and that it’s restful, not restless, sleep. Exercise is important, as well as participating in activities they enjoy. Some people might meditate to feel calmer.

Similar to meditation, we teach our patients guided imagery, which they can practice on their own. With guided imagery, you imagine yourself in a calm place, such as the beach, the woods or a room in your house you really enjoy. You can practice breathing exercises at the same time, too, to promote deep relaxation.

I often tell my patients to focus on their hobbies. You forget your problems when you’re involve in an activity. I ask my patients what they are passionate about, what they enjoy, and what experience they can lose themselves in and don’t know time has passed. If you’re going to take time off work for treatment, try to use that time to do things you want to do. Look at having cancer as a chance to rethink your life and priorities. Yes, it’s something you have to get through, but it’s also a time to re-examine life.

What role can financial stress play in a patient’s treatment and recovery?

I want my patients to have less stress so their immune systems can function properly. High levels of adrenaline suppress natural killer cells that help fight cancer. I talk to my patients about the book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky, a biology and neurology professor at Stanford University. In the book, you see that a zebra pursued by a lion calms down after the lion retreats or the zebra has run to safety. Once in a safe spot, herd animals tend to calm down.

We, as humans, overthink things and worry. That served us well when we had to escape lions, bears and other predators. But it doesn’t serve us well now. As clinicians, we want to do everything we can – including helping reduce financial stress – to boost our patients’ immune systems so once they get well they can stay well.

Read more about coping with the emotional and psychological aspects of cancer.

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