Publication Date: April 5th, 2016
Publishing URL: Everyday Health
Author: Samantha Watson
Imagine you’re a senior in college, on the cusp of launching into the real world, away from the safe bubble of your family and campus. You’re thinking about a lot of things, such as grad school, getting a job and your first apartment, and maybe traveling. You’re definitely not expecting your world to change during one trip home from school. And yet, BOOM. You suddenly become a young adult with cancer.
That’s how my story goes.
My Young Adult Cancer Diagnosis: Ewing Sarcoma
I was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma in my tibia in 1999. I found it by chance: I had recurring knee pain about once a year throughout college, and no one could figure out why. I had tests and X-rays that never revealed anything. In hindsight, they were looking in the wrong spot — my knee. But when my primary care physician recommended a bone scan, we saw the tumor. Ewing sarcoma is rare, and among those who do get it, the tumor is most commonly found in boys between ages 10 and 20. I was a 21-year-old female.
I had to take a leave from my studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, while I underwent treatment in New York City. My Ewing was considered “gone” after treatment, but then in 2001 I was diagnosed with secondary myelodysplastic syndrome, which resulted from my treatment for the first cancer. I underwent a bone marrow transplant in August of 2001. So much for my carefully-laid plans for my early twenties.
I was officially declared “cancer-free” in 2001, and my family, friends, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief that the constant doctor’s visits, medications, and hospital stays were, we hoped, behind me.
But, as I quickly came to learn, cancer isn’t free.
I looked around and saw how little support there was for young adults with cancer such as myself. We were struggling — emotionally and financially — once medical treatment ended. So in 2003, I cofounded a national nonprofit organization, The Samfund, to support young adult cancer survivors after treatment.
What The Samfund Does
The median age of patients at the time of cancer diagnosis is 66, according to the American Cancer Society. While cancer is never welcome news, the reality is that older Americans are more likely to have some savings or job security, have had any children they’re likely to have, and have more of a support system in place than their young adult counterparts do.
People in their twenties and thirties are less likely to have these assets to rely on.
Add “total financial ruin” to the general angst and instability every person in this age group goes through, and it’s not hard to understand why going through cancer at this stage of life is so uniquely challenging.
Our mission at The Samfund is to provide financial resources, information, and community support for young adult cancer survivors, and also to instill hope and assurance that cancer treatment debt is not insurmountable — we can help.
Here are the cornerstones of our efforts at The Samfund:
- Grants For the first time this year, we’re holding two grant application cycles (the next one opens this June). Each application cycle has two parts, and interested potential applicants can view frequently asked questions or our website to prepare and see whether they meet our grant eligibility requirements. For example, applicants must be finished with active treatment, between ages 21 and 39, and residents of the United States.
- Webinars Our free series “Moving Forward With Your Financial Health” addresses some of the most common financial challenges faced by young adult cancer survivors after treatment. It also provides guidance on how to overcome them. Archived topics include:
- Rebuilding your credit after treatment
- Reducing medical debt
- Family building
- Workplace issues
- Cancer Finances 101: A Toolkit for Young Adults with Cancer In partnership with Triage Cancer, we have been developing an online financial decision-making tool to help young adults navigate the complexities of insurance, prescription costs, and medical bills. New resources and information are added regularly.
After Young Adult Cancer, a Way Forward
Since 2005, The Samfund has distributed more than $1.5 million in grants to young adults with cancer across the country. They represent all 50 states, genders, races, religions, and lifestyles, but have one thing in common: financial struggle because of their cancer treatment. Our research on 334 grant recipients, published in February 2016 in Cancer Medicine, shows cancer’s devastating effects on the finances of young adults.
Many applicants come to us at the end of their rope: facing eviction, job loss, dealing with depression and anxiety, losing their only means of transportation, being forced to deal with fertility issues way before they planned, and a host of other issues.
The good news is that our grant program includes assistance for all of these challenges. The bad news is that young adult cancer survivors need us at all.
Once young adult cancer survivors become involved with The Samfund, they join a close-knit network of kindred spirits. Beyond financial support, our community offers an emotional, psychological, and logistical safety net: We have each other’s backs, forever.
One young adult cancer survivor who received a grant for medical bills wrote to us recently: “What struck me most about The Samfund was your unique mission to help people not just dealing with cancer in the present tense, but also those trying to move beyond it.”
That’s really the crux of what we do: triage some of the financial burdens survivors face so they can move forward with their lives.
If you’re reading this and are feeling helpless about the financial debt you or someone you know is facing due to cancer treatment, reach out to us at The Samfund or to another organization in your area, or ask your social worker, nurse, or patient advocate for resources.
Samantha Eisenstein Watson, MBA, is the chief executive officer and founder of The Samfund and a two-time young adult cancer survivor. Sam holds a BA from Brandeis University and an MBA in mission-driven management from the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis. She is proud to be an active member of the cancer community and an advocate for young adult cancer survivors throughout the country.