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How Crowdfunding Helps Patients Deal with the High Cost of Cancer Care

Cancer is not just a physically devastating diagnosis, it can be a very expensive one and lead one into bankruptcy.
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Cancer is not just a physically devastating diagnosis, it can be a very expensive one. Cancer patients are more than 2 and half times more likely to go bankrupt than people without cancer.

And the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center says young cancer patients have 2 to 5 times high bankruptcy rates than those 65 and older. Those numbers are why more and more patients and families facing cancer are turning to crowdfunding to help pay their bills. The internet is making it possible for these people to tap into the kindness of strangers and friends to help them in truly desperate times.

At the start of May, 32-year-old Meghan Morgan was occupied with all the concerns of a single mom. Juggling the dog walking business she owns, Portland Pups, an unreliable truck and raising 13 month old Henry. Now at the beginning of June, she is overwhelmed. Henry is spending his third week in the hospital, diagnosed with a rare type of inoperable cancer called neuroblastoma.

“He’s hooked up to this IV and you watch it go in, and you watch his mood go from happy Henry to “my belly hurts” Henry.

Meghan hasn’t left his side since Henry was admitted three Mondays ago. Her dog walking business is now being run by her four employees. Meghan is not drawing a paycheck and doesn’t see one in her immediate future. She describes her financial situation as “precarious.”

“Once you step back from the important stuff, from the thinking about Henry stuff, and you consider that, it’s very scary.”

For her cousin Kristy Phinney it is almost unbearable. With tears welling in in her eyes she talked about how difficult it is to watch “because I can’t fix it. Just like she can’t fix Henry. She has to let the doctors do that. I can’t fix it, but I can be there. I can support her.”

Meghan has health insurance but no money to pay the $5,000 deductible, which must be met first. Reluctantly, she let Kristy set up a crowdfunding webpage telling Meghan and Henry’s story. This is Kristy’s wheelhouse. She is the social media director at an ad agency. It took her 15 minutes to set up the page using her phone. “I think I was crying the whole time, just writing their story, knowing how important it was.”

Meghan’s expenses could go well beyond her deductible and keeping a roof over her head.

The Pak family is crowdfunding too. Like Henry, their 9-year-old son Wes has neuroblastoma — and he has relapsed. Myong Pak and his wife Krista, who both work, have insurance. But the insurance won’t cover the specialists in New York City that Wes and Myong see once a month, travelling all the way from Virginia. Wes has undergone three surgeries to remove tumors, a couple of biopsies, and bone marrow aspirations. The bill so far $97,000. A bill Myong admits he has no hope of fully paying. “We try our best, ask for donations, um, maybe even file for bankruptcy.”

Asked if that was fair Myong replied “No, but when if life fair right? If life was fair my child wouldn’t have cancer.”

On Go Fund Me, the largest crowdfunding website, there are 30,000 campaigns to fund cancer costs.

Dr. Ashish Jha, of Harvard’s School of Public Health, says crowdfunding is not a realistic answer for this growing problem

“Are we gonna really let the crowd decide who gets health care and who doesn’t? That has it’s own ethical and moral problems. So while I understand the value of crowdfunding and I certainly understand why families turn to it, it is not a sustainable solution for the entire American public.”

Today, Jha says we have to realize that health insurance will cover many of the five and six-figure bills. With an estimated 45 million Americans opting for high deductible plans that are cheaper in the short run, saving for that deductible is critical.

“You still have to prepare for that,” Jha said. “And that’s the big change in mind-shift. You know, we can no longer assume that if you have health insurance, you’re all set. You may not be. You really need to think about what kind of deductible do you have, and do you have the savings that you need to get you through an illness.”

For Meghan Morgan, all she can think about is Henry, getting him well and getting him home. “That’s the important thing to keep in my brain. That other kids have beat this. And Henry’s a tough little cookie.”