Cancer – The Most Expensive Disease; Emotionally and Financially

Cancer costs more in productivity and lost life than AIDS, malaria, the flu and other diseases - American Cancer Society.

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“Chronic diseases including cancer, heart disease and diabetes account for more than 60 percent of deaths worldwide but less than 3 percent of public and private funding for global health.” Center for Global Development.

The state, especially an EU state, has an obligation and priority to guard public health, and for the most part, the state health system in Cyprus does its best with limited resources to treat cancer patients. Those who can’t be treated in Cyprus are sent abroad to experts in the larger EU states, the ones with a lot of experience and more resources to treat the difficult cases.

My mother is one such case. As I’ve written over the past 2.5 years, she was diagnosed with a rare type of gynaeocological skin cancer. In December 2016, I travelled with her to Germany for treatment, and lived with her in the hospital for almost six weeks. Her health situation was so extreme that I couldn’t leave her side even for the months after she came back to Cyprus to recover from the treatment. Almost every other day we went to the Oncology Centre in Nicosia for checkups, as she suffered from multiple infections, including a super bug. I can’t remember a time when my mother was not on strong antibiotics in the last six to eight months.

During the course of her illness, the disease has heavily cost our family emotionally and financially. We’ve gone into debt for the many expenses required, and of course have done and will keep on doing whatever it takes to ensure quality of life. However, the stress is chronic and wearing.

Due to her complicated case and the intensive level of care needed, we brought in a live-in caretaker, but with my mother’s low pension and our already strained finances we decided to apply to the Welfare department for financial assistance, via the Minimum Guaranteed Income. Her application was rejected because her income is a hair above the minimum requirement. Her extreme circumstances were ignored. Even the low amount to cover the care-taker’s salary was refused. The good folks from the Anti-Cancer Association advised us to put in an objection on the basis that the cost of the medicines alone was far more than my mother’s pension. This was done, and I also wrote a letter to Minister Zeta Emilianidou appealing for compassion and assistance.

I went further than that, and met with the Social Insurance in Nicosia to explain that so much of my time, energy and emotional strength was being taken by my mother’s care that I couldn’t work consistently to develop my company and pay for the caretaker myself. It had resulted in financial difficulties and even though I am grateful to be able to contribute, the question was; ‘is there assistance for the families of cancer patients?’ The answer from the Social Insurance was ‘no’, you need to speak to the Welfare department, it’s not in our scope of activities. I was surprised, and asked, surely I can’t be in two places at the same time; at work and at my mother’s side, so what are my options?

During this conversation, the issue had become one of public interest to my mind. We are not the only family with a cancer patient, hundreds of families suffer similar stresses. I have the feeling they been abandoned by the very departments that were created to support them. After all, the money is coming from taxpayer’s pockets, and the European Union, it doesn’t belong to the civil servants administering the funds. My mother paid her taxes for her whole life, where is this money now that she really needs it?

If a cancer patient with financial difficulties doesn’t deserve financial assistance, even the low amount of 400 Euros per month, who does?

Does someone have to be homeless and die on the street to be eligible? Is this what we have become? So callous? Is it right that a family’s financial health be destroyed by high treatment costs? For them to be left with nothing, even worse, in debt to their eyebrows and with little strength left to fight back up the financial ladder?

You may say that cancer treatments for pensioners are free or low cost at the Oncology Centre in Nicosia, and you’d be right. This worthy centre saves many lives and treats hundreds of patients, even providing some medicines for free. But not all of them, and they are not a full-service cancer hospital with all the doctors needed in my mother’s case. She has been bedridden for the best part of the last year, and during the course of her disease has consulted with and been treated by no less than 18 doctors in the private and public sectors. Some operations had to be done in the private sector, which is costly, and every month the medicines not covered by the Oncology Centre amount to at least 200 Euros.

My point is this; things could be much better. In countries like Germany, the family and the cancer patient are both supported by the state system. It is an obvious fact that if a family member is too emotionally stressed to work and too busy taking care of their loved one, they cannot work, so the state system in Germany has methods to assist. Patients with chronic diseases have visitors from the Welfare department, even deliveries of groceries or whatever is needed. The doctors in Germany were surprised that I had travelled with my mother and lived with her in the hospital. They said this role was undertaken by dedicated and trained personnel from their Welfare system and indeed, when I came back to Cyprus I was relieved and happy that they had sent visitors to my mother’s bedside to chat and pass the time with her so she wasn’t too lonely.

This was an eye-opener, because in Cyprus it’s left up to the anti-cancer associations, which are NGOs and do their best but are small organisations compared to the state system.

While the Ministry of Labour, Social Insurance and Welfare goes to great lengths to collect their money from employees, I don’t feel they are as diligent about taking care of other issues like families of cancer patients or other serious illnesses. But with the rates of cancer increasing along with the burden on families, it’s an issue that should be top priority going forward.

Having personal experience of this devastating situation, I can only write about the facts, our journey and our hopes that quality of life becomes as important to the rest of the state sector as it is to the medical establishment.

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