Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun
October 1, 2012
Pictured: Anna Renault, an eight-time cancer survivor
Anna Renault knows cancer — she's beaten different types of the disease eight times over four decades — and she knows how hard it is for people dealing with it to keep their lights on, to keep their cars, even to keep their homes.
Two years of treatment for Stage 3 breast cancer starting in 2009 left Renault with $5,000 in out-of-pocket costs.
"I just cut out everything else: It became an issue, do I have enough gas to go to church?" said the Essex woman. "Things were extremely, extremely tight in 2009 and 2010."
For those difficult years, Renault, 62, got help paying her car insurance from the Cancer Support Foundation. The Ellicott City-based group offers financial support to cancer patients and their families and is campaigning to get the state to create a temporary disability program that would pay out to sick people when they cannot work.
Despite the foundation's help, Renault said it took her two years to pay off the bills. That's fairly typical, said Cindy Carter, one of the organization¿s founders.
"People now go through treatment and go back to work all the time," Carter said. "Cancer's not a death sentence."
But as survival rates have improved, many patients face a long road back to financial stability. The combination of months of treatment and time off work severely pressures many people¿s bank accounts ¿ even those with insurance end up with some medical bills piled on top of their other expenses, given co-payments and deductibles.
For all the millions of dollars raised by cancer charities, only a small sliver of that goes directly to financially supporting patients, Carter said. The Cancer Support Foundation works to find simple ways to help people having expensive treatments, she said ¿ contributing toward their car insurance, running food drives and negotiating with utilities to keep the power on.
Even debt counseling can reduce the stress of paying off bills, Carter said, smoothing the recovery from illness.
Founded in 2005 by Carter and Nancy Frederick, the group now operates a network of volunteers throughout Maryland helping patients with any type of cancer and their families cope with day-to-day life. It has helped 4,000 patients, according to Carter, herself a Stage 1 breast cancer survivor.
Frederick died in 2009 after a 14-year struggle with ovarian cancer.
Renault had been volunteering for the Cancer Support Foundation before she received help from the group and she said that rewriting the law for temporary disability is the only way to create real change. The group is working with Del. Sally Y. Jameson, D-Charles County, to write a bill, which it hopes will be introduced next year.
Under current law, people who leave work because they get sick cannot claim unemployment insurance and by the time they qualify for disability insurance, Carter said, many already are at the brink of bankruptcy and ready to get back to work.
New Jersey has a program that provides assistance to people temporarily unable to work due to illness. Carter would like to see that scheme recreated in Maryland.
"Nobody wins if a cancer patient goes into bankruptcy," Renault said. "That does not save anybody."
Much of Renault's adult life has been a battle with cancer and finding ways to pay for her treatment. She received her first diagnosis ¿ uterine cancer ¿ in 1977 when she was 27. In the 1980s, she was treated for two different types of skin cancer.
During two rounds of colon cancer in the 1990s, Renault's daughter and her family moved in with her so she could afford to keep her house.
"We all lived together for a number of years because once you get into debt it takes a while to pay all that off," she said.
In 2005, Renault was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and had retired but still worked part time to make ends meet. In 2007, Renault's granddaughter signed on as co-owner of her house ¿ two years before she was diagnosed the eighth time.
"There's just so many normal everyday things you don¿t do because you can't afford to," Renault said.
Things like getting a haircut or eating a meal out, she said.
"People don't see that side of cancer. They see the medical side, they don't see the real-life side."
More information on Cancer Support Foundation can be found at (410) 964-9563 or cancersupportfoundation.org.