It was towards the end of 1995 when mum first noticed a small lump on the right side of her neck just under her jawline. When she saw her GP he told her that it was likely just some blocked glands and that it should take care of itself with time. Six months passed and there had been no improvement. Mum was obviously concerned and so she asked if Dad could take a look inside her mouth to see what he thought. Dad was a dental technician and although not a medical doctor he knew straight away.
The next day they saw a specialist who confirmed Dad’s fears. Mum had mouth cancer. She was 46 years old.
Not long after her diagnosis mum was admitted to hospital and underwent surgery that finished with part of the floor of her mouth being removed along with all her saliva glands. Following her recovery in intensive care and feeding though a nasal tube, she soldiered through radiation therapy every day for the next eight weeks. The dramatic weight loss, nausea and burns from the therapy all took a heavy toll, and she was readmitted back into hospital on more than one occasion when it all became too much.
One of the other side effects of the radiation therapy was that it destroyed all the taste buds in Mum’s mouth. The doctors said this would only be temporary and her taste would return in time. It never did.
Nine months later Mum had finally recovered enough to be able to return to work.
Mum’s second battle with cancer began eight years later in 2004 when a lump in her left breast was detected at her annual screening exam. Fortunately, the prognosis was positive and she would only require a lumpectomy followed by a short cycle of radiation therapy.
Unfortunately, Mum’s breast cancer was located relatively high up. The day before the radiation therapy was due to commence, the doctors realised that they wouldn’t be able to proceed because part of the area to be targeted had already been radiated by the treatment for the first cancer.
Plan ‘B’ it was then. Full mastectomy followed by chemotherapy.
There is a saying that “bad things often come in threes”. It’s an ominous superstition and one that would unfortunately prove true.
In August 2007 while my parents were enjoying their annual camping holiday at Shark Bay, Mum had noticed that Dad was unusually lethargic. When they returned home Dad brought a heavy cough with him that he struggled to shake off for weeks. He was prescribed a series of antibiotics but they didn’t help. Finally he decided to see a different doctor for a second opinion who suggested that Dad undertake a blood test. As soon as the GP’s office had the results they were on the phone and told us we had to get Dad to a hospital right away.
Following several hours of hospital tests Dad received the diagnosis. He had a blood disease called Myelodysplasia (MDS) otherwise known as ‘pre-leukaemia’.
Once a week thereafter Dad had to go into hospital for blood transfusions, which it was hoped would restore normal blood cell production. The transfusions helped but only temporarily. By Christmas 2007 the doctors advised that Dad’s MDS had progressed to become Acute Myeloid Leukaemia.
At that point Mum made the decision to retire from work so she could focus her time and energy on helping look after Dad. The only treatment option was a bone marrow transplant, but the doctors advised they generally didn’t go down this path where patients were over 55 years old (Dad was 61). Fortunately, Dad’s brother was tested and found to be a 100% donor match, so the doctors agreed to proceed.
The next 100 days were critical in determining whether or not the surgery was successful. If Dad could just get through that then the odds of a full recovery would increase significantly. We patiently waited and counted every hour of every day, until finally he crossed the 100-day milestone. He’d made it. There was an overwhelming sense of relief. Dad was on track to make a full recovery and we could start putting this all behind us.
At least that’s what we thought.
Not long after the milestone Dad’s health suddenly began to deteriorate quickly and the doctors couldn’t explain why. He was admitted back into hospital for more tests and transfusions but over the next two weeks his condition only worsened.
On the morning of April 12th 2008 the doctors gave us the devastating news. The bone marrow transplant had failed. There was nothing more that could be done.
A few hours later, Dad passed away with Mum and I by his side.
Six months later Mum was diagnosed with cancer in her right breast. Her mouth cancer had also returned.
Mum’s third battle with cancer was the most difficult one. Whilst still coming to terms with the loss of Dad, she would somehow find the strength to endure another mastectomy, two very long and complicated surgeries (14 hours each) to remove part of her jawbone and replace using bone and tissue from her lower legs, and several reconstructive & cosmetic surgeries. Eight years has passed since, and the final operation will hopefully be completed this year.
These experiences not only took an obvious emotional toll on the family, but they had significant financial implications as well. In particular, it revealed some important financial lessons to me about the importance of personal insurance.
- The odds of suffering a serious illness are not in our favour
We Aussies are well regarded for our carefree and optimistic ‘she’ll be right’ attitude to life. It’s an endearing quality, but one that often creates a false sense of security when it comes to our insurance needs and reality. At the end of every day around 350 new Australians will be diagnosed with cancer. If you’re female, the odds of being diagnosed with cancer are about 1 in 3. If you’re a bloke, those odds increase to 1 in 2. These odds paint a sobering picture that it may no longer be a case of ‘if’ something happens to us but simply ‘when’. We all need to recognise there are very real risks that exist which have a very real chance of impacting our lives. When it comes to our physical and financial wellbeing, ignorance is not bliss.
- Both members of a couple need to be financially protected
When considering their insurance needs many couples make the unfortunate mistake of choosing to protect only the ‘primary’ (i.e. higher) income earner. The problem with this approach is that it’s like deciding that your left lung is more important than your right lung, when really you need them both functioning if you want the best opportunity of enjoying life. My Mum and Dad both had full-time jobs yet Dad was the only one with personal insurance. When mum went through her first battle with cancer our family had to survive for several months on just Dad’s income. This caused significant stress for my parents who had to make some difficult sacrifices. It was only years later that mum revealed that they were on verge of pulling me out of private school and sacrificing one of their most important goals which was to give their son the type of education that they never had.
- Private health insurance is only part of the solution
Many people assume that if they have private health insurance that a lot of the medical costs associated with treatments will be covered. My parents certainty did, which is why they committed to going through the private health system after Mum’s first cancer diagnosis. Despite having top-tier private health cover they were still hit with significant ‘out-of-pocket’ costs for drug treatments, medical scans, specialist appointments and radiation therapy. Even now private health insurers won’t cover the costs of radiotherapy when it is conducted as an outpatient service, and there can be long waits if you opt to go through the public health system. By the time the dust had settled and Mum had fully recovered, the cost of her cancer including lost income was almost $30,000.
- Personal insurance gives you more financial certainty
When Dad became sick and couldn’t work his income protection insurance provided a monthly income that allowed Mum to retire from work so she could be by Dad’s side. It meant they didn’t have to stress about how they were going to pay the bills and could instead just focus on the time that they had left with each other. After Dad passed away, Mum used most of her retirement savings to pay off the remaining mortgage. Dad’s superannuation was relatively modest, and Mum was still 7 years away from being eligible for an Age Pension. Fortunately, Dad had life insurance. His parting gift to Mum would be the peace of mind that not only would she never have to work again, but that she would have more financial certainty of living the kind of life that they had imagined for themselves.