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‘I felt numb’: Confronting the health and financial costs of cancer

06:00am August 27 2021

Dilky (left), with granddaughter Aleena, is in remission after treatment for breast cancer. (Supplied)

“Love you, Nanna.” 

Three precious words my three young children share with my Mum, Dilky, during their lockdown calls in 2021. 

But she may not have been with us to hear them, if not for a routine mammogram she had in 2007, which detected the early signs of breast cancer in my then 64-year-old mum. 

“It was a shock, I felt numb,” she recalls ahead of today’s Daffodil Day Appeal, the Cancer Council’s iconic campaign. 

Sadly, it’s an experience many people go through. 

In Australia alone, an estimated 1.1 million Australians either having survived or currently living with cancer, and one in two people are likely to be diagnosed with cancer by the age of 85, according to the Cancer Council Australia. 

Thankfully, one of my mum’s friends happened to be with her when she received her diagnosis, and her support network consisted of friends in the UK and family abroad. I had migrated from the UK to Sydney and learnt of her diagnosis by phone.  

It was an awful feeling knowing I couldn’t be there in that moment to give her a hug and help her come to terms with her diagnosis. For anyone looking for information during these trying times, the Cancer Council offers great information and support services

Beyond the immediate health concerns, the difficult reality is some families and individuals often also have to then confront the significant financial impact of serious illness, with the diagnosis, treatment, and recovery all adding up. Suitable health insurance may help to reduce some of the financial pressures so the patient can focus on their health and recovery. But each policy is different, and every treatment plan is unique; so, it’s important to read the details to know what is covered. 

In addition, family members, carers or support networks can also be impacted financially, often reducing work hours or assisting with additional caring costs. 

As at all times during life, it’s helpful to have a clear understanding of your financial position. Creating or updating your budget, and freeing up funds by reducing unnecessary or non-essential expenses are two fairly quick options. 

You might also be able to earn an income or extra cash from an existing asset? For example, renting out your car on peer-to-peer platforms like Car Next Door. 

But if you’re feeling overwhelmed by your bills, remember, several options are available, including applying for a hardship program, discount or concession from services providers and local councils. You can also access financial counsellors through the National Debt Helpline and check Centrelink for any payments available for those living with disabilities, illness and injury and their carers. 

For Westpac customers in difficulty, Westpac Assist is here to help. We’ve also partnered with the national social enterprise Violet to provide greater access to emotional and practical support for caregivers.

A final tip: I’d also recommend gathering essential personal documents (including any signed wills and power of attorney etc) for ease of reference if needed.

As for my mum, she quickly underwent surgery to remove her cancer, which was a success. Shortly after, she commenced radiotherapy for five weeks and then commenced taking oral chemotherapy.

But she also had to adjust to life after treatment. 

I flew to London to help, before she ultimately began an application to migrate to Australia under the Contributory Parent visa, which came through in November 2009. 

By this time, my first child, Aleena, was 12 months old, and the moment that my mum met her for the first time in Sydney was one I will never forget. 

After continuing to take oral chemotherapy until December 2012, she has grown in strength and in 2021 is, gladly, in full remission.

In these COVID-19 times, few things are as certain as they once were. But hindsight remains at least as wonderful – and powerful – as ever.

As she still recalls to this day: “The early diagnosis from the mammogram helped save my life.” 

 

Lali Wiratunga, National Manager of Westpac's Davidson Institute and Alumni Advisory Board Member, AGSM @ UNSW Business School. He is an advocate for the role innovation, entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship plays to help people and organisations to prosper. He is a proud father of three children, Aleena, Lucas and Evan.

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