It was April Fool's Day, 2005. I was in New York for work, at LaGuardia airport, and my OB-GYN called to tell me I had breast cancer. It was no joke: I'd recently had a mammogram that was suspect. I have no family history of breast cancer and never had a problem on a mammogram. It was inconceivable to me that I would ever be diagnosed. I got the news on a Friday, so I had the whole weekend to worry about it. It was hard to assimilate what she'd told me. I didn't know the extent of the disease or the exact next steps, but I did know I'd have to have surgery.
In one moment I went from healthy person to cancer patient. That's how long it takes for your whole life to change. And the timing would turn out to have not just a devastating effect on my health; it would destroy me financially. Just before that New York trip, I'd left my previous job to join a Detroit start-up—I work in marketing and was in New York pitching a client for them. I felt I had to let these people who were investing in me know what was going on. So I told them that I had breast cancer and we agreed that it wasn't a good time for me to join their team.
That left me unemployed and basically unemployable. You can't interview for jobs and tell people, "Oh, by the way, I have cancer and I'll have to leave for surgery and other treatments." And because of this I also now had a COBRA premium of $1300 a month to insure myself, my kids, and my self-employed husband.
A lot of people are already in precarious financial positions. It only takes one stroke of bad luck to wipe out what you have. I was no different. I'd been through a financially devastating divorce in 1997. My former husband lost our home, his business, our cars were repossessed, and he filed bankruptcy for just under $15 million in debt. So for all those years post-divorce, I'd been paying off creditors and doing things to avoid personal bankruptcy. In other words, I had no savings.
Within three months, the home that I had purchased went into foreclosure. I had to choose between the COBRA payment and the house payment. Within six months, I was in line at the food bank in the basement of a church. I had no resources. I couldn't enroll in Medicaid because my previous years' income was too high.
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To say this period was emotionally brutal is understating it. I felt like a complete failure. I'd been schooled at the University of Michigan, traveled to Europe, had all the benefits of the financial success of my parents, and here I was unable to care for myself or my children. There was a period of time when I contemplated suicide. I figured if I died, my kids would be better off because I had taken out a half-million dollar life insurance policy when I went through my divorce.
What terrified me more than anything was falling into a cycle of poverty. I'd read that it takes almost three generations—if not more—to get out of that cycle. And that people who fall into depending on state and federal aid often stay poor because there's a chasm between making enough money to live and the types of jobs and income they can have based on their education.
As I worked through my treatment, I began to realize I wasn't alone. I sat in these treatment rooms with a lot of other working women who were on family medical leave, or had lost their job because their treatment protocol was longer than the 90 days allowed by the Family Medical Leave Act. So they were really worried. Like me, they had been working to support their families and had no resources.
I thought to myself, it's incredible that so many women can get sick and find themselves in financial freefall because of it. No one asks to get sick. The unfairness of it all made me angry. So I made a conscious decision: I would shift my thinking from "helpless" to "helping." I would help these other women deal with their situations. An idea hit: A nonprofit could raise money that could be used to support breast cancer patients in need.
Let me tell you: Once I made that mental shift, despite the fact that I was still in line at the food bank, trying to pull my house out of foreclosure, get the utility bills paid, I was so energized and empowered. I just kept going. I bought a massive book called How to Form a Nonprofit Corporation—it's almost 6 inches thick, very small type—and my husband and I went at it. He was a big help, writing our by-laws and filing our 10-23 application for nonprofit status, which is when The Pink Fund was born.
We decided to launch by putting a plaster cast of my pre-surgery bust up for sale on eBay. The cast was just my way of dealing with anxiety about the surgery. It's painted in gold leaf and has battle ribbons across the chest. We had no intention of selling it, really, we just wanted to get some attention for what we were doing. And we did: Newspapers picked up the story and donations started coming in. That was October of 2006.
Fast-forward to today. The Pink Fund is now a national organization garnering attention for this issue, now known as financial toxicity, which can impact a patient's ability to complete treatment and contribute to earlier mortality. Think about it: People without resources will skip treatments or oral medications to save on co-pays. So far, we've paid out more than $2.2 million to help 1,674 patients meet their living expenses.
Once I made the decision to give help, everything changed. I don't know how to describe it: I always say that if I could put that shift in thinking in a gelcap, I could save the world. Once you shift your thinking from "poor me" to "what can I do to help?" you take control. Understand, nothing changed in my circumstances for a long time. But I fought and I was able to get back to work at the end of my treatment. I still lived paycheck to paycheck, no savings, until about the last three years. That was hard, but not as hard as feeling like a failure.
As told to Mike Zimmerman
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