When Lise Lalonde found out she had advanced stage two breast cancer that had already spread to her lymph nodes last July, her life came to a standstill so she could undergo a rigorous but debilitating treatment plan.
Three weeks later, Lalonde began to face physically and emotionally demanding rounds of chemotherapy for hours at a time. Her cancer was so aggressive that her medical team opted for a powerful chemo drug referred to as the “red devil” among patients, she explained.
“It was daily pain and suffering,” Lalonde said. “And the injections were, oh my God, a hundred times worse.”
The 51-year-old woman from Beauharnois, Que., then received injections directly into her bone marrow to boost her white blood cell count, before another round of what she described as “inhumane” chemo.
Lalonde was almost ready to throw in the towel nearly halfway into the plan because she was so sick, but what has made the situation even worse is the “horrifying” financial strain.
“You can go to bed wondering, ‘How long am I able to keep my apartment? How long am I going to be able to keep my car? How long am I going to be able to keep a roof over my head, put food in my fridge?’” she said.
With her diagnosis, Lalonde had to immediately stop working and she says her job unfortunately doesn’t offer any kind of benefits. She was entitled to a maximum of 26 weeks of Employment Insurance Sickness Benefit through the federal government, which gives her 55 per cent of her salary for six months.
But Lalonde is struggling to figure out what to do as the money runs out.
“I didn’t ask to have cancer,” she said.
Between the rounds of chemo, injections and her last surgery, Lalonde’s next appointment with her oncologist is not until the middle of February. She doesn’t know what the next step is and even if the treatment worked or when she can return to work.
“Until then, you have that constant, constant stress,” Lalonde said. “You go to bed with anxiety. You wake up with anxiety.
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“We shouldn’t have to suffer mentally on the side for our finances as we are suffering mentally and physically for sickness.”
‘No timeframe for cancer’
The financial burden almost overtakes the cancer for Lalonde. As a single woman, she is worried she will lose everything she worked for while fighting for her life.
Now, Lalonde says she has no choice but to turn to welfare, but that is only about 20 per cent of her past salary and she says she can’t survive on it.
What she wants is a greater understanding and financial support for cancer patients by the federal government. She says an indefinite sickness benefit should be offered in situations like hers based on supporting medical evidence, so that ill Canadians aren’t financially ruined.
“There is no timeframe for cancer,” Lalonde said.
A spokesperson for Canada’s Ministry of Employment and Social Development said in an email the EI Sickness Benefit was recently bumped up from 15 weeks to a maximum of 26 weeks in December 2022 because the government recognizes “workers of all ages who face more serious illness or injury may require more time to recover.”
The sickness benefit is meant to act as “short-term supplement” of a range of other measures like provincial and federal disability plans. But the spokesperson also said the ministry is “still looking for new and innovative ways to support Canadians via the EI system and it is an ongoing commitment.”
Lalonde, like many other patients, has had to turn outward for financial help.
The CURE Foundation for Breast Cancer is a non-profit organization founded in 1997 and dedicated to supporting Canadians living with cancer, which tries to help bridge the gap for patients. Lalonde has benefitted from its donor-funded financial assistance program.
“What we have seen and what we what we know is that a breast cancer diagnosis is not just a health crisis. It has become a financial crisis as well,” CURE Foundation executive director Debi Rosenthal said.
The vast majority of the program’s applicants have had to stop working. The average length of treatment for breast cancer patients is approximately 35 weeks, according to Rosenthal.
Patients are not only paying for rent and food, she added, but often are faced with a range of expenses like hospital parking, wigs, cold caps, therapies and child care.
The patients who apply for the foundation’s $2,000 grant are in “dire need” of help and, in many cases, are in significant debt, said Rosenthal.
“They have nowhere to turn,” she said.
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