Witnessing my parents’ battles with cancer over many years revealed some incredible personal and financial lessons to me about the importance of personal insurance. Towards the end of 1995, mum noticed a small lump had appeared on the right side of her neck just beneath her jawline. She saw her GP who reassured her that it was some blocked glands, and that the issue would resolve itself.
Six months passed with no improvement. By then, mum had become more concerned and asked dad, a dental technician, to look inside her mouth. He wasn’t a doctor but knew there was a problem and they saw a specialist the next day who confirmed their fears. Mum had mouth cancer at 46 years old.
Not long after her diagnosis, mum was admitted to hospital. She underwent extensive surgery that culminated with the doctors removing part of the floor of her mouth. Following her recovery in intensive care, during which she was fed through a nasal tube, mum soldiered on through daily radiation for the next eight weeks. The dramatic weight loss, nausea and burns from the therapy took a heavy toll, and she was re-admitted into hospital several times.
Nine months later, mum finally recovered enough to be able to return to work.
Mum’s second battle with cancer began eight years later, in 2004, when a lump in her breast was detected at her annual screening exam. Fortunately, the prognosis was positive and she would only require a lumpectomy, followed by a short cycle of radiation therapy. Unfortunately, the day before the radiation therapy was due to begin, the doctors realized that they wouldn’t be able to proceed because part of the area to be targeted had already been radiated by the previous treatment. Mum’s only viable option was to undergo a full mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy.
There is an ominous superstition that bad things come in threes and unfortunately, for my family, that proved all too true.
In August 2007, while my parents were enjoying their annual camping holiday at Shark Bay, Western Australia, mum noticed that dad was unusually lethargic. When they returned home, dad developed a heavy cough that he struggled to shake off for weeks. He was prescribed a series of antibiotics but they didn’t help. Finally, he decided to see a different doctor for a second opinion. The second doctor suggested dad take a bloody test. As soon as the GP’s office had the results, they were on the phone ordering dad to get to hospital immediately.
Following several hours of hospital tests, dad received the diagnosis. He had a blood disease called Myelodysplastic (MDS), otherwise known as ‘pre-leukemia’.
Once a week thereafter, dad received blood transfusions in a bid to restore normal blood cell production, but this was only a temporary solution. By Christmas 2007, doctors advised the MDS has progressed to acute myeloid leukemia.
Mum retired to focus her energy on caring for dad. His only option was a bone marrow transplant but doctors were weary; it wasn’t a path they’d usually pursue for patients over 55 and dad was 61. Fortunately, dad’s brother was found to be a 100% donor match and doctors agreed to proceed.
The next 100 days were critical in determining the surgery’s success. If dad could pull through, the odds of a full recovery would significantly increase. We counted every hour of the day until he crossed the 100-day milestone; he was on track to make a full recovery.
At least that’s what we thought.
Shortly after, dad’s health deteriorated quickly and doctors couldn’t explain why. He was admitted to hospital for further tests and transfusion but his condition worsened still. On 12 April 2008, the doctors gave us devastating news – the transplant had failed and nothing more could be done. Just a few hours later, dad passed away with mum and I by his side.
To add insult to injury, mum was diagnosed with cancer in her right breast just six months later, and her mouth cancer also returned. Her third battle was to be her most difficult one. Whilst still coming to terms with the loss of her husband, she found the strength to ensure another mastectomy. Two long and complicated surgeries, 14 hours each, removed part of her jawbone and replaced it with leg bone and tissue, with several reconstructive and cosmetic surgeries that followed. Nine years have passed since the initial surgery, and it’s only this year (2017) that the final surgeries are expected to be completed to reconstruct mum’s jaw.
These experiences not only took an emotional toll on the family, but they had significant financial implications.
We Aussies are well regarded for our carefree, optimistic ‘she’ll be right’ attitude. It’s an endearing quality, but one that creates a false sense of security when it comes to both insurance and reality.
Every day, around 350 Australians are diagnosed with cancer. If you’re female, the odds are about 1 in 3, and for blokes it’s 1 in 2. Those are sobering odds, and it’s no longer a case of recognising ‘if’ something may happen to us but ‘when’. We need to recognize the very real risks that exist, and acknowledge that ignorance is not bliss when it comes to our physical and financial wellbeing.
When considering insurance needs, many couples make the mistake of appointing a ‘primary’ (e.g. the higher) income earner. This approach is comparative to saying one lung is more important than the other; you need them both functioning to enjoy the best life has to offer.
My mum and dad both had full-time jobs yet dad was the only one with personal insurance. When mum went through her first battle with cancer, our family had to survive for several months on just dad’s income. This caused significant stress for all of us and my parents had to make some difficult sacrifices. It was years before my mum revealed they’d been on the verge of pulling me out of private school and sacrificing one of their most important goals – giving their son the education they never had.
Many people assume that if they have private health insurance, most of the medical costs associated with treatments will be covered. My parents did, which is why they committed to going through the private health care system after mum’s first diagnosis. Despite having top-tier private health cover, they were still hit with significant out of pocket costs for drug treatments, medical scans, specialist appointments and radiation therapy. Even now, private health insurers won’t cover the costs of radiotherapy when it is conducted as an outpatient service, and there can be long waits if you opt to go through the public health system. By the time the dust had settled and mum had fully recovered, the cost of her cancer (including lost income) was almost $30,000.
When dad became sick and couldn’t work, his income protection insurance provided a monthly allowance that allowed mum to retire from work so she could be by dad’s side. It meant they didn’t have to stress about how they were going to pay bills and could instead focus on their time together. After dad passed away, mum used most of her retirement savings to pay off the remaining mortgage. Dad’s superannuation was relatively modest, and mum was still seven year away from being eligible for an age pension. Fortunately, dad had life insurance. His parting gift to mum would be the peace of mind that not only would she never have to work again, but that she would have more financial certainty of living the kind of life that they had imagined for themselves.