Wednesday, February 16, 2011

In the Chemo Room: Financing alternative care

"It is quite emotional when you're fighting for your life and you are out of money."

Those are the words of Sue Memhard, recent founder of The Emerald Heart Cancer Foundation, a new Colorado nonprofit that is raising money to help women fight cancer through alternative and complementary methods.

My last two reports from the chemo room opened a discussion between readers about the high cost of conventional cancer treatments and the lack of financial resources (meaning health-insurance coverage) available to cancer patients who choose alternative care.

"The foundation was started last year," Memhard explained, "as a result of my own personal experience of trying to find financial help for myself while I was doing alternative treatments for breast cancer. I'm a three-time survivor and I found that there were no organizations that could offer financial help unless an individual was doing chemo.

"I had developed very significant chemical sensitivities from prior chemo that I had taken a number of years ago," she continued, "... [but] everything that is not under the umbrella of the conventional care system is pretty much not covered by insurance. So even if you have insurance, it really doesn't matter.

"It's all out of pocket, and it's quite expensive."

So Memhard and her husband moved to Colorado from Massachusetts to get her under the care of a local alternative-care practitioner, putting the family under significant financial stress. When her husband, who is still looking for a job, asked what Memhard wanted to do here to help the couple survive financially, she said she wanted to start the nonprofit, no small expense itself. Part of the money she is trying to raise will go toward her own salary (which effectively means her medical bills).

And that's how creative you have to get when battling cancer from a pocketbook. My last post described some of my own bills; besides Memhard, the blog inspired Dr. Robert Zieve of Prescott, Az., to contact me about a conference in Phoenix next month that will gather experts on alternative and complementary treatments that are far less expensive than conventional chemo and radiation.

But that doesn't mean alternative treatments don't also cost patients their accumulated fortunes. Memhard called the three $500 grants her foundation has already awarded three women from Connecticut, New Jersey and California "a drop in the bucket" toward the total cost of their care.

That's also why she is actively looking for donors and other sources of financing to get her foundation up and running at a scale that might approach the great need traditional health insurers continue to ignore.

One of the things I've found that is a little debilitating about fighting cancer as hard as you might wish to fight it is the realization of your own uncertain future. Conventional cancer doctors estimate your survival times at various lengths: usually from three to five years. If you are found cancer free after five years of being cancer free, the docs will tell you it looks like you're cured, but not to count on the disease not coming back.

So the shadow cast by survival remains hauntingly over your shoulder, a little dark cloud no matter how well you might be feeling.

"It's quite emotional when you are fighting for your life and you are out of money," Sue Memhard told me.

A professional counselor with 30 years experience, Memhard also uses the foundation as a conduit for providing free telephone counseling to women who are facing the emotional anchors that threaten to pull you under while you are fighting the disease. She could use a little help along her way.

Give her a call at 303-993-8843 or go to her website at Whether you need help or can offer some, she'll welcome your call.

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