Battling breast cancer is physically and mentally exhausting.

While we often think of chemotherapy and invasive surgery as the most taxing parts of fighting the diagnosis, breast cancer patients must also challenge cancer on a financial front.

In 2010, medical costs associated with breast cancer in the United States were projected to reach $16.5 billion — the highest cost for all cancer types. Researchers from National Cancer Institute estimated that these costs would reach upwards of $20 billion.

But what about the expenses outside of medical costs? Beyond the cost of treatment, cancer patients must find a way to keep up with their preexisting bills —  such as mortgage payments and utilities — even if they’re unable to work.

For breast cancer patients who aren’t sure when they’ll have the money to pay next month’s rent, the Pink Fund can help.

Breast cancer survivor Molly MacDonald founded the Pink Fund in 2007. The fund is a public charity that provides short-term financial aid for breast cancer patients undergoing treatment.

Patients who qualify and are selected for aid are covered for three month on health insurance premiums and non-medical bills like rent, utilities, and car payments, for a maximum of $3,000.

MacDonald told Revelist that she launched the Pink Fund after recovering from breast cancer herself. When she received her diagnosis in 2005, MacDonald had just quit her job to move into another career, and had just undergone a financially devastating divorce — the timing derailed her plans and prohibited her from working, setting her further back financially.

Shortly after, MacDonald’s house was foreclosed, she couldn’t make her car payments, she had to bargain with the utility companies, and her credit score tanked. On top of that, she wasn’t eligible for any non-medical financial aid.

There’s a clinical term for what MacDonald and many other women go through as breast cancer patients: financial toxicity — the emotional, mental, and physical side effects induced by the financial strain of cancer treatment.

Some of this strain might come from unexpected hospitalizations and high insurance copay.

“It really affects a patient’s ability to focus on healing. Some patients in the worst case scenario will stop treatment and go back to work,” MacDonald said. “Financial toxicity is an actual side effect, it’s real. You can’t just bury your head in the sand and pretend the bills are going to go away.”

After meeting other breast cancer survivors going through similar situations, MacDonald realized that if she couldn’t get help herself, she could at least try to give help to other women.

Molly MacDonald (center right) and The Pink Fund staff

The Pink Fund receives funds through individual and corporate giving, and directly pay the patient’s creditors for basic living expenses, including health insurance premiums, rent, and car insurance payments.

Patients who apply for the Pink Fund must currently be undergoing treatment and meet a range of other qualifications.

Since its foundation, the Pink Fund has awarded more than $1.35 million to breast cancer patients. From 2007 to 2011, the fund helped 44 people, but grew substantially after participating in a nationwide program with Ford in 2012. In 2015, they funded 350 applicants, and have helped 41 families this September alone.

Jessica Carl, a 27-year-old breast cancer patient, was diagnosed in January of last year after she found a bump on her breast.

After starting chemotherapy, the pain and side effects were so severe that the mother of two had to quit her job as a medical assistant.

“The first round of chemo lasted two months and it was the worst time of my life. My blood count would drop, causing my blood pressure to bottom out and make me pass out,” Carl told Revelist. “I was constantly nauseated, everything tasted like metal, my body constantly ached, and my bones just hurt.”

Carl’s mother found out about the Pink Fund through the American Cancer Society, and helped Carl apply for the grant. A month later, Carl found out she was chosen for the fund.

“They paid my mortgage payment, car payment, and cell phone bill for three months. I was beyond relieved that I had some help, and wouldn't lose my house that I [had] worked so hard to buy for myself and my two amazing kids,” Carl said.

Carl had a double mastectomy in August and has started reconstruction, but is waiting to know whether she can undergo radiation. Carl now has neuropathy and was denied disability, but is fighting the decision. Though she no longer has the Pink Fund grant, Carl still receives occasional help.

“Even after they were through, [the Pink Fund] have kept in contact to see how I am doing. They have sent me other funds to try and relieve other financial help seeming I am not back to work yet,” Carl said.

Kourtney DeVaughn, a 27-year-old administrative assistant, was diagnosed with breast cancer last January as well. Shortly after diagnosis, doctors pulled DeVaughn out of work, but she continued to receive some of her salary through the Family and Medical Leave Act.

DeVaughn worried how her diagnosis would affect her daughters, and wanted them to still feel some sense of normalcy. The Pink Fund helped with that, too — because the group covered her rent and phone bill for two months, DeVaughn was able to send her daughters to summer camp.

“I didn't want to not send them. I wanted their routine to stay the same, they were already affected emotionally by me having cancer — I didn't want my situation to affect them even more,” DeVaughn told Revelist. “...Them paying those two bills for me during that time took a huge weight off my shoulders… The pink fund has no idea how they kept me afloat financially during that time.”

DeVaughn explained how breast cancer interfered with her duties as a parent — she couldn’t sign her kids up for sports, music, or dance lessons this year, simply because she couldn’t afford to. It made her feel like less of a parent.

“The Pink Fund took that burden out my hands and I am forever grateful of that. They made it so that my kids could hold onto some sense of normalcy during this time where everything else in their life was not while mom was going through treatment,” DeVaughn said.

MacDonald suggested that patients advocate for themselves financially and ask about the cost of care after recuperating from the shock of diagnosis. She recommends questions including:

  • I’m concerned about the cost of my care — who can I talk to here about the cost of care like hospitalization and medication?
  • How do I know I’m not being billed more than once or for something that didn’t happen to me? (MacDonald provides an example of herself being mistaken and billed for a Molly McDonald.)
  • I work and I’m concerned about the potential side effects — are there certain medications I can take that might have less taxing side effects that will have the same results?

MacDonald also suggested patients check medical bills for the correct spelling of their name and address, the correct insurance card group number, and the correct billing codes in order to avoid getting overcharged.

“[These are] things that we want to help patients [with] and take patients around how to manage some of this toxicity, even though we’re not going to be able to provide them with additional income,” MacDonald said. “We need to teach [people] how to advocate for themselves financially."