When you're diagnosed with cancer, your first thought is: "How am I going to get through this?" But then your thoughts quickly turn to your family: "How will I tell my daughters? How will they cope?" Maternal instinct kicks in and you start worrying about your kids and forget that you're the one with cancer. Protecting my family from what was happening to me was one of the things that kept me going. But something quite unexpected made it very difficult to do that - cancer's hidden price tag.
New research from Macmillan Cancer Support shows that the average British family cannot afford cancer. That was certainly true in my case. I had to make some impossible decisions simply just to keep a roof over our heads.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013 - a year after I'd been made redundant from my Civil Service job of four years. I had a double mastectomy but my body rejected my reconstructed breasts and as a result of that and other medical issues, I've been unable to return to work since. Once the dust settled and I came to terms with my diagnosis and the loss of my breasts, I realised I was in real trouble. My income halved and suddenly I had all these extra outgoings - travel costs due to frequent trips to hospital and higher heating bills because I felt the cold more as I went through treatment. Having worked all my life I was in unchartered territory, unsure how I was going to keep myself alive and my two daughters, Emira and Aya, then 11 and 10, safe and well.
I'm a saver and I don't do debt so it started with the little things. I stopped buying meat because it was too expensive and started buying items on special offer. I stopped going out- I just couldn't afford to pay for those coffees and drinks with friends. Then rapidly, I started having to make those big, lose-lose decisions - pay the mortgage or feed myself and kids nutritious food? It had to be the mortgage, so we started bulk-buying baked beans. Nutritious vegetables were a thing of the past.
It was too expensive to heat the whole house and as we had a leaky roof, which I couldn't afford to fix, we just heated the one room. The front room became my home. I could just about cope with that. What was really hard was that my daughters' lives had been turned upside down because of my cancer. School trips and after-school clubs went out the window. But in many ways, despite how tough it's been it's made me incredibly proud of my children. My daughters now live by the motto: "Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves." And Aya was awarded the Carers Trust Young Carer of the Year in 2014 for looking after me. It's saddens me they both had to grow up so fast because of this wretched disease and the financial pressure we've all been under.
Macmillan Cancer Support says the average family is left with around £365 each month after paying for necessities. But previous research shows that cancer has an average monthly cost of £570 for 4 in 5 cancer patients. If a family is hit with cancer this can leave them with a £200 shortfall. Cancer is tough enough as it is without worrying about making ends meet. It puts families, like mine, under further pressure. Three years on from my diagnosis and I'm still paying for it. I find it galling that I've worked hard for all these years to find myself in this position now. People often talk of cancer as a 'battle'- I expected that. But I didn't expect two fights - the disease and trying to stay financially afloat.
However, it's not all doom and gloom - there is help out there. Through a Macmillan grant I was able to buy a bed better suited to my needs after surgery - something I couldn't afford on my own. That cheque was a lifesaver. Macmillan's website also provided me with a wealth of information that was very comforting as I was coming to terms with my diagnosis. I relied on the financial advice when I realized I was in over my head. The charity has a dedicated team of benefits advisers who can go through all those complicated forms, not to mention a financial guidance service who help with anything from mortgages to pensions and insurance to savings. I've been in remission a year and am now waiting to have corrective surgery on my breasts. I'm thankful I'm alive but my journey is still far from over. If you've been diagnosed with cancer I'd urge you to get help from Macmillan early. You shouldn't be worrying about money, but on getting better.
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