Starting a career is very puzzle-like. You finish school — high school, college or otherwise — and you’re sent off with all these pieces of life you need to try and put together. You dump the pieces in front of you: Do you have everything you need? What the heck is it supposed to look like?
You might as well start fiddling around, trying and failing until it starts to make sense. It’s exciting. Frustrating. Frightening. Even then, you may not like what you see, but you’re figuring it out. You’re making progress.
Imagine you’ve had this puzzle thrown at you, and you’ve barely started looking at the pieces before you get interrupted. You’ll get back to it as soon as you’re able, but when you return, it will still be a mess of fragments, while your peers have made progress toward the big picture.
One more thing: When you get back to your first puzzle, a second one has been mixed in. You have to sort through the mismatched pieces before you can hope to solve either. For Lauren Mostardi, that’s what it was like to get cancer at 22 years old.
“It’s hard enough for my friends who didn’t go through it,” Mostardi, now 28, said. “I lost five years of trying to start a career.”
Throughout those years of treatment, with limited earning potential, she fell into medical debt. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to interfere with her attempts to start life as an independent adult.
Something ‘A Little Off’
Mostardi first visited the doctor when she noticed some rashes on her skin. She later learned it probably had nothing to do with her cancer, but it’s what got her into the doctor’s office, where she had blood work done. A few days later, her doctor said the blood work was a little off, and she needed to see a specialist.
Mostardi had just started graduate school at the University of Akron, working toward a master’s degree in history. She got a call in class, and the doctor told her to come in. She went from class to the doctor’s office, then to the hospital: Mostardi had acute promyelocytic leukemia, and it needed immediate attention.
It was the beginning of many months of treatment, much of it inpatient, followed by remission, relapse, transplants and a life on hold.
Good Fortune Isn’t Always Enough
In many ways, things went as well as they could for Mostardi: She deferred her student loan payments, lived with her parents and underwent treatment that was largely covered by health insurance. She often worked part-time.
As helpful as those circumstances were, Mostardi faced many obstacles. After her first diagnosis and remission, the disease returned twice, putting her in treatment for 2 1/2 years total, followed by a year of what she describes as “intense follow-up care.” She could only work part-time because fatigue, doctor’s appointments and a related anxiety disorder prevented her from securing full-time employment. Any employment certainly helped, but she worked for minimum wage; as an adjunct faculty member, she earned even less.
“It was kinda one of those things you have enough money for everything you planned for, but if there’s one thing you didn’t plan for it’s, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do?” Mostardi said.
Getting through cancer was a victory, but many of the obstacles remained. Mostardi suffered vision damage as a result of treatment, but she didn’t have the money for new glasses. She still didn’t have a full-time job. Routine doctor visits continue to be a part of her life. On top of that, she had a car payment, plus auto insurance bills.
“Your car insurance people don’t care if you have cancer,” she said. “You still have to pay your bills when you have cancer.”
With the help of grants from Surviving and Moving Forward: The SAMFund for Young Adult Survivors of Cancer, an organization that supports young cancer survivors struggling with the costs of their diseases — Mostardi was able to get the new glasses and pay off about $1,000 of outstanding medical debt she had upon entering remission. Getting rid of medical debt is huge, because she doesn’t have to deal with debt collectors, and some credit scoring formulas have started to lessen the negative impact paid collection accounts have on your credit standing.
Unfortunately, Mostardi’s financial issues are common among cancer survivors. A recent report from the Washington National Institute for Wellness Solutions says 62% of cancer survivors incur debt as a result of treatment, and it’s a particularly difficult burden for survivors under the age of 50. More than half of them require financial assistance to access treatment, the report found.
Even now, Mostardi is far from having solid financial footing — the car is paid off but there are still student loan payments to make, and her medical expenses haven’t disappeared. Recently, she received several vaccinations she had already gotten as a child. Treatment wiped out her immune system, and it cost money to rebuild.
Having gone through her disease three times already, Mostardi worries about it returning, but it’s not holding her back as much as it used to. After years of sifting through that mess of career and cancer puzzle pieces, she’s been able to separate them to the best of her ability and work toward her goal of teaching history. She still doesn’t have full-time work but has two part-time jobs. She’s now married and has the support of great friends, as well.
“Personally I’m a lot more secure,” she said. “I’m optimistic.”
More on Managing Debt:
- 5 Tips for Consolidating Credit Card Debt
- Understanding Your Debt Collection Rights
- The Best Way to Loan Money to Friends & Family
Image courtesy Lauren Mostardi