Alberta Cancer Foundation

Cancer cost softened by financial assistance program

Finding out you’re going to have twins is likely a big shock. Finding out you have cancer is an even bigger shock. Rajwinder and Gurmeet Sarao didn’t really have time to process the first announcement before being hit with the second.

Rajwinder Sarao is happy the Alberta Cancer Foundation’s financial assistance program has defrayed the cost of his treatment.
photo by Joey Podlubny

In 2009, Rajwinder went for his yearly checkup and, through regular blood work, his family doctor found his white blood cell count was high and sent him to a specialist. Rajwinder didn’t feel sick, and his platelets and red blood cells were fine, but the specialist did a bone marrow biopsy and found chronic myeloid leukemia. Thankfully, his diagnosis was in the early stages of the disease: “My wife is very good at making sure we have regular checkups every year and that’s why we caught it at such an early stage,” Rajwinder says.

His cancer treatment required him to be on medication and go through a month of chemotherapy and then receive a bone marrow transplant. “Before [the transplant] I needed to prepare by going through chemotherapy and all kinds of treatments. And then I started preparing my mind according to the situation: ‘How can I find a positive attitude?’ I’m so thankful to my wife for helping me so much.”

As a food delivery driver, Rajwinder did not have workers’ compensation or health benefits through his job. He worked up until two days before the transplant in November 2010. Luckily, his wife, Gurmeet, an employee of the School of Hospitality and Tourism at SAIT, had health benefits that covered 80 per cent of the medical costs. Still, being down one income and dealing with the extra costs that come with a cancer diagnosis and subsequent transplant care – like the extra gas needed to drive back and forth to the hospital multiple times each day – was not easy. Gurmeet, who handled “everything else” while her husband fought the disease, says they didn’t waste money on anything: they bought simple foods, ended casual shopping trips and didn’t buy anything for the house during Rajwinder’s treatment. “You cannot stop your bills, you cannot stop your mortgage, you cannot stop your gas. Those things still come on,” Gurmeet says.

Cancer is a huge strain on the finances. People are often forced to cash in their RRSPs and use up their savings. Long-term disability insurance typically only makes up 60 per cent of a paycheque. Applying for any governmental financial assistance can take up to six months, and some of those funding options only last a few months. Meanwhile the bills pile up and some families are forced to declare bankruptcy, all on top of one member’s failing health. The costs that go along with the disease can sometimes be so overwhelming that a patient will decide not to have life-saving, curative treatment like a transplant and instead opt for a lesser treatment due to potential cost savings by not having to travel or relocate for treatment.

Holly Minor is a clinical social worker in the blood and marrow transplant program at Calgary’s Tom Baker Cancer Centre who has her work cut out for her.

“For the first while, even for a year or longer, patients can be in a state of absolute shock trying to understand and absorb all the treatment information,” she says. “Their lives are turned upside down, especially if they have to attend many appointments.” Some patients have to face being told they cannot go to work tomorrow. What then?

“We try to do our best for our patients to reduce their stress by helping them navigate the territory of private and public funding,” Minor says. “Everyone benefits from having a road map and being helped along the way.”

A Family Affair: The Sarao family is thankful to have Rajwinder back in good health.
photo by Joey Podlubny

Sometimes patients will be denied funding because of how much they have in their RRSPs or other savings. “This is often very upsetting to patients,” Minor says. “Money they have saved is to help with living expenses during retirement.” Patients are then obligated to cash in savings, causing even more worry about how they’ll manage when they’re older and cannot work, and only when most of their savings are used can they reapply for other funding. The feelings of loss due to a cancer diagnosis simply multiply when finances are taken into account.

Rajwinder and Gurmeet were sent to Minor and together they worked out a plan specific to their situation. Fortunately for the Saraos, bone marrow transplants for Alberta is done in Calgary, and since the family already lives there, they didn’t have to relocate for at least three full months, like many other patients from around the province do.

Also, the family was eligible to apply for the Alberta Cancer Foundation’s financial assistance program. The program provides temporary financial assistance to help pay for expenses related to cancer diagnosis and treatment – including travel, parking and living expenses. It is accessed through social workers in cancer centres across Alberta and there is a list of set criteria to meet in order to receive this funding. “This is a fund of last resort,” Minor explains. “When we meet with patients, we explore other means of financial help available in the community and we assist the patient in accessing community agencies, provincial, federal, and private insurance funding.”

Rajwinder met the criteria for funding from the Alberta Cancer Foundation. And he is very grateful. “It was hard with so much at once but I just believed in myself, believed in my doctors and believed in the system. That worked very well for me,” he says.

“Everything is beautiful, everything is perfect, and I’m so thankful to the system and everything, so thankful. I don’t have the right words to say.”
Donors provide almost $800,000 a year for the Alberta Cancer Foundation financial assistance program. “I find that patients are really touched that it’s individuals in the community that are contributing and fundraising because then it’s not quite so lonely having cancer,” Minor says. “They receive tangible proof that people really do care.”

Rajwinder’s transplant was successful and he is now cancer-free. His job requires some heavy lifting, so it took a few months for the company he was contracting for to find a less physically-demanding position, but he is now working three days a week with them. His mother was able to come from India to take care of their children for a couple of years while Rajwinder worked on recovering and Gurmeet took care of him. They have four kids: a 17-year-old boy, a five-year-old girl, and the twin girls are now three. The family is thankful for all the help they received from friends, extended family and strangers.

Nobody enjoys having to ask for help, but Minor explains to her patients that “one of our most important human needs is to contribute to enrich life, to make someone’s life more wonderful. And when we ask for help, we’re also giving that person a gift.” Many of her patients want to give back after receiving such support.

Rajwinder plans to be a volunteer driver for Tom Baker patients who need a lift back and forth to the centre for appointments. Some are too weak due to chemotherapy and others are from out of town and don’t have their own transportation. “It would give me great pleasure to give back for all the help I had. I think we’re all supposed to give back,” he says. “Sometimes I couldn’t even walk or stand and my body was shaking, but there were so many hands to help me. I can’t help those people, but I can help others and that would be a blessing to me.”