Cancer: Why GPs should find time to ask cancer patients about money

Financial problems for people affected by cancer can have a profound impact on their wider health. GPs should learn to ask about patients' financial situation and direct them to support, says Macmillan GP adviser Dr Nicola Harker.

GPs simply don’t have the luxury of time. In just 10 minutes, we have to check for consequences of cancer treatment, review medications, and assess other health concerns.

Cancer is just one of the many complex conditions that require time. Time to listen to a patient’s medical concerns, understand the wider impact cancer is having on their life and provide support. The financial impact of cancer is a something I see a lot as a Macmillan GP. But only because I’ve started asking.

According to a new report by Macmillan Cancer Support, thousands of middle-aged people in the UK are being forced to borrow money from their elderly parents because of the cost of having cancer.

In No Small Change, Macmillan estimates that more than 30,000 people with cancer in their 40s and 50s have borrowed money from the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ - their elderly parents. Macmillan is urging not only the government and financial sector to play a part in alleviating the financial struggle of people affected by cancer, but also healthcare professionals.

In my view, GPs are in a good position to ask about the money worries that people affected by cancer face. But often patients don’t mention their finances to their GP. They don’t think it’s your job, that you can help or it hasn’t occurred to them that it could affect their health. But it can be a huge problem that can cause other health problems; stress, anxiety or depression, coughs and colds if they aren’t eating enough or aren’t heating their home because they’re worried about the cost.

I recently spoke to a patient with advanced cancer who is a few years away from paying off his mortgage. When I asked whether he and his wife had been offered any advice about their financial concerns, they both broke down and told me they were worried that he wouldn’t survive long enough to pay off the mortgage.

Nobody had mentioned that there was support available. The thought of worrying about paying your mortgage when you have cancer seems a cruelty too far but life doesn’t stop when you’re in poor health. You still have bills to pay and a roof to keep over your head.

I worry that patients don’t have the time or energy to seek out support on the financial impact of cancer. They are juggling 10 things at once and sometimes it feels easier to bury your head in the sand. But GPs can take quick steps to help.

By simply signposting people to Macmillan Cancer Support’s dedicated money worries webpage, patients can get advice on what services are available to them. The website includes a range of support in the form of specialist benefits and energy advice and financial guidance on pensions, mortgages and insurance.

I know that every minute of a 10-minute consultation is a precious commodity. It can feel counter-intuitive to spend it asking about something other than the matter at hand but using just one of those minutes to ask about finances and signpost to specialist support, could go a long way to helping patients with cancer.

  • To find out more about the financial impact of cancer, read the policy report and for more information on support available to patients visit macmillan.org.uk/moneyworries

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