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Learning to cope with a critical illness

The diagnosis is always a shock, but there are ways to prepare, cope and thrive.

You are going through life as you do every day – balancing work and home, pursuing your dreams – and then, out of nowhere, you are diagnosed with a critical illness. Your world is turned upside-down. What do you do next?

Thankfully, with early detection and advancements in medical treatment, survival rates are increasing.1,2 After the initial shock wears off and your medical team creates a plan for your treatment, the real work begins.

Unfortunately, you can’t prevent a critical illness from happening, but you can take steps to cope with your diagnosis and help protect your livelihood.

Mentally coping with a critical illness

Critical illnesses like cancer, stroke, organ failure, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s or other neurological diseases take a great physical and emotional toll on not only you, but also your family, friends and loved ones.

Not surprisingly, a host of emotions – fear, anxiety, sadness – may flood over you and potentially cloud or blur your logical thinking. Having loved ones in your corner to support you, attend appointments with you, ask questions and be your advocate is invaluable.

There are additional things keep in mind that may help you mentally deal with your diagnosis and condition:3

Get a prescription for information

The more you know about your condition, the better equipped you'll be to understand what's happening and why. First direct your questions to your health care team. If you want to do more in-depth research, ask them about additional trusted sources of medical information.

Beware of depression

Dark, dreary moods are understandably a common side effect of critical illnesses. Depression can keep you from taking important medications, seeing your doctor when you need to, or pursuing healthy habits. 

Read up on the signs of depression. Let your doctor know if you think you're depressed or heading in that direction.

Reach out

Doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals aren't always the best source of information about what it's like to deal with a critical illness.

To get additional emotional support, look for a support group in your area and talk with people who have been through what you are facing. 

Plan for end-of-life decisions

If the diagnosis of a critical illness – or life with one has you thinking about death, channel those thoughts to the kind of care you want at the end of your life.

Spelling out your preferred approach to treatment and care – whether you want the most aggressive care until the very end or you'd prefer hospice care and a do-not-resuscitate order – can save you and your loved ones a lot of confusion and anguish later on. 

Why preparing for a critical illness makes sense

Although it is difficult to imagine dealing with a critical illness, it is important to be thoughtful and prepared.

One major reason to consider preparing for a critical illness is your family’s medical history. Many of the critical illnesses that people have are hereditary and are passed on to subsequent generations.

Other important reasons include: 

  • More than 1.6 million new cases of cancer are diagnosed each year in the U.S.4
  • Advances in medical technology mean more people will survive these illnesses.5,6
  • Critical illnesses are expensive. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20 percent of cancer patients younger than 65 delay or refuse treatment due to the high associated cost.7
  • 11.2 million Americans were forced into poverty because of out-of-pocket medical expenses in 2015.8

A critical illness diagnosis is an increasingly common occurrence, but if you’re raising kids, caring for parents, helping friends or trying to get healthy after a critical illness, the last thing you need is to worry about is your finances.

Data shows we are not prepared

Of the Americans who have savings accounts, the median savings account balance is $5,200. The median savings account balance for those under 35 years old was $1,580. During the years between 35 and 44, savings account balances do increase — the median for this age group is $5,0009  - but unfortunately, that still may not be enough. 

What expenses could you face?

Critical illnesses often introduce many unforeseen expenses to your daily life. They may include:

  • Insurance co-payments and deductibles
  • Travel for treatments
  • Home medical equipment and assistance at home
  • Pay your mortgage while recovering

  • Pay bills, anything from your car payment to insurance premiums

  • Pay for experimental treatments (not covered by health insurance)

  • Replace a spouse’s income while caring for you 

Financially preparing for a critical illness

You can't necessarily plan for a critical illness, but you can prepare for the unexpected costs of illness by making decisions that can soften the financial impact.

Have an emergency fund

Experts recommend building an emergency fund that could cover up to 3-6 months' worth of living expenses. For most people, that can add up to an intimidating number that can discourage even the best-intentioned saver. Here are some tips to help get started.

Consider automatic savings for healthcare expenses

Saving in a health savings account through your employer can help cover future, non-reimbursed medical costs. Money from each of your paychecks is automatically deposited into a designated account that you can use for deductibles, copays and medications. 

Have a secured line of credit

If emergency savings or other type of cash reserve is not an option, some financial professionals suggest a line of credit secured by your home as a short-term option if you can repay the loan quickly, since they generally offer lower interest rates.

Consider critical illness insurance

Many critical illnesses would take you out of work for an extended period of time, so if you do not have an emergency fund that would be able to cover your bills or other living expenses, you may want to purchase critical illness insurance. Critical Illness insurance will help you prepare for unexpected expenses a serious illness can bring.

Critical illness insurance provides a lump sum cash payment to you if you are diagnosed with a condition covered under the policy. Critical illness insurance policies allow you to use the money however you wish – and some allow you to enroll for coverage for your dependents, too.

How critical illness insurance works

Let’s say you are undergoing chemotherapy for cancer and your Critical Illness policy includes cancer as a covered condition. Your medical insurance may pay a large portion of your treatment costs. However, other out-of-pocket expenses may begin to surface.

Some of your medications may not be covered under your policy, your special diet requires pricey ingredients, and you would like to try a holistic therapy your policy won’t cover.

If you have critical illness insurance, you may receive a lump sum payment and can use it to help pay for other expenses such as the medications that aren't covered, lifestyle changes and holistic therapy.

Preparing for a critical illness will help give you financial peace of mind when you need it most: at a time when you need to focus on your health and taking care of your family.

1.  American Heart Association, Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics Update, 2017
2.  American Cancer Society, Annual Report to the Nation on Cancer, March 2016
3. “10 steps for coping with a chronic condition” Harvard Health Publishing, March 2017.
4. American Cancer Society, Cancer Statistics Center, 2016.
5. American Heart Association, Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics Update, 2017.
6. American Cancer Society, Annual Report to the Nation on Cancer, March 2016.
7. “The average cost for cancer chemotherapy treatment,” by Ritwik Ghosh, August 14, 2017, Livestrong.org
8. Modern Healthcare Reports, U.S. Census, 2015.

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