Until there is a cure for breast cancer...

A pink spotlight is shown on breast cancer awareness every October, but for patients diagnosed with the disease, battling breast cancer is their focus 365 days of the year. Roughly 4,600 women in Maryland will be diagnosed with breast cancer annually, joining the 50,000 women already living with the disease in our state.

Until there is a cure, these women will wage a fight for their lives while battling on a second front as they deal with multiple threats to their finances. Necessities such as childcare, household upkeep, food and transportation become crippling when combined with treatment time and costs. The out-of-pocket cost of living with breast cancer can add $2,230 to a family’s budget monthly.

The added financial pressures will cause thousands of women to struggle with the difficult choice between providing for their families or saving their own lives. According to the American Cancer Society, among those living with cancer, 40 percent have difficulty paying health care costs, 25 percent have depleted their personal savings, 25 percent have been contacted by a collection agency, a third have difficulty affording medications, and 10 percent have declared bankruptcy.

Until there is a cure, breast cancer will continue to be an equal opportunity villain with no preference for socio-economic status. However, the effects felt by patients with lower incomes are usually much harsher. They are typically diagnosed within the later stages of breast cancer, have a longer gap between diagnosis and treatment on average, are least able to tolerate the out-of-pocket expenses and have a less-positive outcome.

Depending on the individual case, type, and number of treatments needed, the total cost of living with the disease, on average, can reach nearly $130,000. That amount, when added to the logistical stressors of undergoing treatment and balancing everyday life, is paralyzing and insurmountable for many.

Until there is a cure, our best shot at defeating this disease is to support these women and make their decisions to accept and continue treatment as seamless as possible. We are bombarded with images of women whose outward appearance signal their battles, but what is hidden is the pit-in-the stomach financial struggle that gets added to the sickening and debilitating effects of chemotherapy.

What is missing from the picture is the stress and guilt that comes from not feeling like the mom she once was because of treatment and its aftermath won’t let her — as hard as she tries.

What is not captured are the cascading impacts living with breast cancer has on all those who depend on that woman for so much: children, significant others, family members, friends, colleagues, students — the list goes on and on.

Without solutions that help families cope with their new normal, patients make the sometimes fatal choice to delay entering or to discontinue treatment because of financial and practical burdens to their families.

Closing the gap between diagnosis and treatment is one of the strategies outlined in Maryland’s Comprehensive Cancer Control Plan that will lead to reducing the morbidity and mortality rate from breast cancer. Streamlining the decision to enter treatment as soon as possible is of utmost importance in order to save lives.

Until there is a cure, we can focus on providing patients and families with tangible relief 365 days a year, whether it be a ride to treatment, picking up groceries, making a meal for families, house cleaning, massage/acupuncture therapies for pain relief or financial assistance for chemotherapy and radiation.

By providing these resources to breast cancer warriors, we can alleviate their everyday stressors and improve their piece of mind so they can focus on treatment. According to the National Cancer Institute, recent studies have shown that women who experience less stress hormones have a better chance of surviving treatment without a relapse compared to women who experience more stress hormones.

Until there is a cure, Marylanders can look to local organizations to care for their friends, family, and neighbors — and trust the solutions brought to bear will make an immediate and profound difference in their lives.

Jan Wilson is the executive director of Maryland-based non-profit The Red Devils. The organization funds support in three program areas that align with the most common barriers associated with breast cancer treatment: transportation, family support, and medical services and treatment-related therapies. Her e-mail is jan@the-red-devils.org.

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