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After surviving cancer twice as a young adult, Samantha Eisenstein Watson found there’s more to the fight than defeating a disease — there’s a financial battle, too.

Nearly two-thirds (62%) of cancer survivors fall into medical debt as a result of their treatments, a study from the Washington National Institute for Wellness Solutions found. The report’s findings indicate young people — survivors younger than 50 — have a particularly difficult time paying for treatment. More than half of them (53%) said they couldn’t get the care they needed without financial help.

Watson was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma in 1999 and Secondary Myelodysplastic Syndrome in 2001, personally experiencing the financial purgatory of surviving cancer in your 20s and 30s: you’re generally too young to have established significant savings but too old to rely on your parents’ insurance or monetary support. That cancer-free, but financially strapped limbo was crowded, and Watson realized there were no resources designed to help this population get out of debt and get their financial future back on track. In 2003, she set out to fill that gap.

Celebration Tainted By Anxiety

When it comes to cancer, there is no good timing. As soon as it interrupts your life, the goal is to defeat it, recover and live a changed but somewhat normal life. Before completing “Operation Survival,” little else matters. But the cultural emphasis on survival can belittle an equally exhausting recovery process.

“I don’t think most people realize how hard the aftermath is,” Watson said. “We’ve had a lot of people say the financial aftermath of cancer is harder than cancer itself, which is a really big statement.”

Watson described the transition as being pushed off a cliff.

“Everyone said, ‘This is great. Go get your life back.'” She, like those around her, celebrated her survival, but what did she have to go back to? Her life had hardly started when cancer barged in, making a mess of what she had.

“For people who don’t have that, people who don’t necessarily have a job to go back to, or they can’t do what they were doing, or live independently — we went there because nobody else was,” Watson said.

The “we” is Surviving and Moving Forward: The SAMFund for Young Adult Survivors of Cancer, a nonprofit providing financial assistance, free online support and education to young adults who have survived cancer.

Survival Relies on Debt

When Valerie S. was 11 years old, she was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a rare blood disease when bone marrow stops working. For about 7 years, she lived on blood transfusions, until she had a bone marrow transplant. Disease-free, Valerie still needed a great deal of medical care. Despite having health insurance and a family that supported her as a child and teenager, she still had to deal with large medical bills nearly 10 years after her transplant, much of which paid for care necessary to keep her alive.

In 2008, debt collectors were calling her at work. She paid more in medical bills each month than she did in rent. On average, she took 12 medications at a time, some of which cost about $40 per refill. When at a camp for young survivors of cancer, she learned about The SAMFund and applied for a grant.

The application process for The SAMFund grant is simple enough: You have to be a cancer survivor in your 20s or 30s who has completed treatment and requires financial assistance for expenses directly related to your cancer. The average grant is just more than $2,100, and applicants must make specific requests. Watson said the idea is to completely relieve the survivor of something, whether that’s a car insurance payment, 6 months of rent or a $1,500 medical bill that just went to collections.

“Our applicants can make up to three requests, and we ask them to put them in order of priority,” Watson explained. “We do the best we can and figure out where our biggest impact can be.” The organization has awarded $1.1 million in grants since 2005, and Watson said The SAMFund is working toward making the program more proactive.

“We have people who have come to the grant program and by the time they come to us their credit is shot,” she said. “Instead of panicking and making a terrible decision we’re hoping we can sort of steer them in a different direction.”

Facing Impossible Choices

Oftentimes, people have let their medical bills go so they can pay rent, or they’ve paid the medical bills so they don’t go to collections, but then they have no money for rent. Either scenario has drastic consequences that Watson and The SAMFund would like to help young people avoid. Failing to repay debt or even the most common bills can seriously damage your credit, diminishing your chances of securing any loans or credit you may need in the future. A poor credit score can cost you thousands of dollars in your lifetime, an additional cost no one needs, especially people with extraordinary medical expenses.

Valerie received a grant for $1,000, which helped her pay part of a medical bill and negotiate a more affordable monthly payment for the remainder of her balance.

“The monthly payments I was making were so difficult, and I could barely make ends meet,”Valerie said. The grant didn’t resolve her financial obstacles — she said things have only significantly improved in the past 2 years — but it provided enough relief for her to gain momentum with her recovery. She has fewer medications now, but they’re still costly, and she suffered joint damage during treatment that requires ongoing care.

“It doesn’t go away. I’m 15 years out of transplant, but I’m going to be facing co-pays, unpaid time off of work,” Valerie said.

In other words, any bit of assistance helps.

“Most people feel like they’re drowning,” she said. “With The SAMFund and the grant, it’s like a breath of air. It’s not going to get them on dry land and up and running necessarily, but hopefully, it gives them a moment.”

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