What Price Do Families Pay When a Child has Cancer?

You’re young and recently wed. You’ve started a family and are trying to make ends meet financially. You used to think eating lunches out was a big expense.  Now there are diapers, special food, daycare, sports and other activities, and the need for more space! Hiring a sitter so you can go to dinner and a movie costs more than the dinner and movie! Your spending priorities have shifted but for the most part you’re managing.

Then your eldest child starts to bruise easily, gets fevers often and doesn’t want to eat. Over a relatively short period of time you are told your child has cancer. Leukemia. You’re assured that survival is good and your child has a good chance to beat this. But the treatment hospital is over an hour’s drive away. You have to plan for many nights in the hospital; and your first stay will be weeks long. Either you or your partner has to stay with your ill child while the other is at home with your youngest. Travel-related expenses, including meals and accommodations, increased daycare costs and the realization that one of you won’t be able to go back to work for what will likely be a long time. Ugh. Of course you don’t think much about finances at the start. You are focused on keeping everything together and making sure your ill child will survive. But slowly the costs become apparent. The credit card bills roll in. So much for managing.

The POGO Financial Assistance Program helps families with out-of-pocket costs when their child is in cancer treatment.

This is a common storyline among families of a child with cancer. Although most of the treatment is paid for by the government or private insurance, there are large costs associated with a child’s cancer care, the largest most often being a loss of nearly half the family income due to one parent leaving the workforce. This is a well-known issue among researchers. They know the financial costs in the early part of the diagnosis and treatment are huge. But what researchers haven’t figured out is how families do in the long term. What is the financial health of the family three, five or 10 years after the diagnosis? Does this kind of health crisis turn into a chronic financial condition for the family? Does the family ever recover financially?

New research by POGO is linking data from its cancer registry (POGONIS) to copies of Canadian tax returns stored at Statistics Canada. Families who experience a diagnosis of childhood cancer are being compared to families who do not experience cancer and are similar in age to the parents, in number and age of the children, where they live and income at the time of diagnosis. The researchers can then follow both family types over time and compare what likely ‘could’ have happened to the cancer family financially to what did happen.

This research is ongoing—the comparison families are now being identified—but so far we can see that a child’s cancer diagnosis stalls household income growth for about a year after the diagnosis, after which household income continues to climb. Of more interest is that families whose child dies after the diagnosis start their family life with lower household income compared to families with children that survive, after which the household income follows the same pattern of income growth. More on this story is yet to come, as this research will also examine the financial impact of the difference in cancer type. Stay tuned!

Dr. Jason Pole is the Principal Investigator on the study Long-term Economic Consequences of a Childhood Cancer Diagnosis. He is Senior Scientist with the Pediatric Oncology Group of Ontario; an Associate Professor in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto; Adjunct Scientist with The Hospital for Sick Children Research Institute; and Adjunct Senior Scientist at ICES, Toronto. Dr. Pole has a background in epidemiology and health services research with an emphasis in the use of administrative data and complex survey instruments.

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