The damage that cancer can cause isn't just physical. It affects everything from relationships to mental health to family life. One area it affects hugely, which we don't talk about enough, is money.
The hidden financial costs of cancer are huge. Macmillan Cancer Support estimates that four out of five cancer sufferers are £570 out of pocket every month. This can come from any number of new expenses including lost wages, travel to hospital appointments, money spent on prescriptions (many sufferers pay despite being eligible to have the fee waived), replacement clothing, special equipment and home modifications, to name but a few.
Of course, if you're self-employed, the financial worry of cancer is amplified. Without an employer to pay sick leave, freelancers can be left in an extremely vulnerable position. Ahead, we talk to Rocio, an artist from Hackney who struggled with money when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014, even losing her home in the middle of her treatment. She explains how she got back on her feet, with a little help from her friends.
"I was on my own, living in shared accommodation and self-employed as an art teacher for adults with autism when I found the lump.
The [doctors] took the biopsy and within two weeks they told me I had breast cancer, it was stage three, and they would have to operate. It was all very quick. I would have chemotherapy and radiotherapy and it was going to be a very long treatment, a year and a half.
The word 'cancer' is very scary when it’s addressed to you, especially when you’re on your own. I had gone, expecting to be fine and then, 'Oh it’s cancer'. Then I thought, 'I’m self-employed and I’m living in a shared house and I don’t have any savings. What am I going to do?'
A few months later, the landlord I was living with evicted me. She said it was because I couldn’t pay the rent, which wasn’t really right because the housing benefit was paying it – just a month later. I had been avoiding her because I thought it must be a scary thing for her – living with someone with cancer. I tried really hard to keep it together and look as good as I could and not be needy. In the end it was kind of incredible actually – I had just finished chemotherapy and I was literally just starting radiotherapy when she sent a text to evict me.
Luckily, I had one incredible friend who came with me to all my chemotherapies and she took me to the housing office in Hackney. I had sort of tested the water there a little when I was first diagnosed, but I’m not very comfortable in those situations. But my friend came and we spoke to them, explained I had cancer and that I’d been evicted and from there, it went really quickly. They just said, 'Right you’re going to emergency accommodation, take your bags and go to this house'. It was mad.
In the emergency accommodation hostel I had a tiny little room. When I arrived the woman said, 'I just want to let you know that there is a shower [in your room] so you won’t have to share'. They were so kind and helpful. There were a few things that were difficult but I was so grateful to have a roof over my head – especially while I was going through radiotherapy. There were a few mothers with children and there wasn’t any drug use or anything but I was mostly aware of keeping to myself – I just stayed in my room really.
My health actually started doing very well at that point. I think I’ve always been a fighter and I had so many other things to think about other than cancer. And then someone at Macmillan, who I had met as soon as I was diagnosed and who helped me so much, making sure I filled out the right forms to get the right benefits and support, suggested that I do some adult education classes for myself and so I started learning about textiles and screen printing at the Working Men's College and that’s where I met all my new friends.
Because I had lost a lot of friends through [cancer]. I know people do in tough situations, it’s not a new thing, but you never know who’s going to stay around and who’s going to turn out to be an amazing friend. I tried really hard not to ask for any pity and I think sometimes pity is what people want to give and if they can’t do that, they don’t know what to do and the relationship can break down.
But I ended up getting a new community and it was good because it would push me to go out and I would have gone insane staying in the hostel room.
When I finally got permanent accommodation a year later it was incredible. Incredible! There was nothing; I didn’t have any furniture, just boxes. But I had amazing friends I’d met in my classes and they helped me get a sofa, one of their husbands bought me a bed, I was given a fridge. I didn’t have a washing machine or a cooker but that was fine, I cooked on a little mini electric hob.
And then I got diagnosed with cancer again.
It turned out to be a sarcoma – a really rare form of cancer which I still don’t know very much about. But compared to the first cancer, I don’t want to say it was easier, but I definitely felt more like, 'Okay, I don’t have to worry about money and a job,' Macmillan was there and I had a home.
They removed the sarcoma in an operation and I had to have a regular every-three-month X-ray because there is a high chance of it spreading. I don’t google anything, I think sometimes it can be too much information so I just take what I can take. I had a big scare a few months ago but since then it’s been okay. Now I’m on a six-monthly X-ray. In terms of my breast cancer, I’ve never had the word 'remission' but I’ve gone down from six-monthly to yearly check-ups. It’s still there, it’s just being…checked.
A year ago, I managed to go back to work – to the same job actually. I do still get tired, especially as I’ve started working with children as well. I also do lots of swimming and it’s great to get fit again. I’m trying to do some screen-printing; T-shirts, bags, I did a little stall and sold all the T-shirts I'd made. I also do voluntary gardening in a local community garden.
So that’s my thing at the moment. I mean it’s not going to earn me loads of money and you know, I do need to earn money so I feel like I’m at a turning point now. I think I’m a mixture of being excited and a little bit worried. I don’t have a partner who is also earning a wage, so it’s just me. I think being self-employed you are more vulnerable but I like the freedom. I'm just trying to lower the worry and bring up the excitement to look towards the future really.
Over the past five years I’ve been fortunate to meet the most amazing people – not just Macmillan but through the NHS and the council. I have always thought life is this incredible, precious thing but I think now I feel that more passionately. I feel very fortunate to have made some really good friends and I’m so grateful. I think I needed to be around positive amazing people – it gave me the strength I need to get here."
Rocio is talking about her cancer milestones to support Macmillan’s Milestone Moments fundraising campaign. If you're dealing with cancer and are worried about money, you can also call them free on 0808 808 00 00, seven days a week, 8am-8pm, or complete their email form.