When Michelle Butler was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer last August, she was grateful that she had insurance to cover the bulk of her bills.
What she didn’t realize right away was how many costs are associated with cancer treatment and how quickly they add up.
Butler was a “traveling” nurse working as a contractor in Virginia when she was diagnosed. That meant she wouldn’t be paid for any day she couldn’t work during treatment, since independent contractors don’t receive employee benefits.
“We didn’t have children at home, so we decided to travel,” Butler, 45, says. “My husband is a freelance photographer, and we figured we should travel while we’re still young and healthy enough to enjoy it.”
Before they started traveling, the couple paid off most of their debts, including their mortgage, but while they were in Virginia, Butler was diagnosed with HER2-positive breast cancer. She continued to work most days, except for the four weeks she had to take after surgery. That’s when the little expenses started adding up, and Butler needed help.
Butler found Hope Chest for Women, a small nonprofit that helps women with breast and gynecological cancers, after she returned to the area and started going to Pardee Hospital for care.
Hope Chest for Women was founded as part of Hope, a Women’s Cancer Center. It became a stand-alone nonprofit after the medical practice was sold to Mission Health.
Sara Laws, executive director of Hope Chest for Women, says, “We would have had to limit our help to women who were patients at Mission, and we decided we didn’t want to be limited.”
Hope Chest is 100 percent community-funded, with no government or large grants. Money comes solely from personal contributions and the nonprofit’s own fundraising events. Hope Chest for Women has just one employee. The rest of the work is done by volunteers.
“This gives us the flexibility to cover things other nonprofits can’t,” Laws says. “Our money can go to things that aren’t directly related to treatment, like mobile home lot rent and property tax, or for utility bills.”
Butler has spent $7,000 out-of-pocket so far this year, and she says she is grateful it wasn’t more. Cancer costs can top $1 million pretty quickly, and with deductibles and copays, it can cost tens of thousands a year, even with insurance, Laws says.
For Eunice Daniels, the help from Hope Chest for Women has allowed her to keep living independently by paying small bills when her money runs out before the end of the month.
“I was getting by, well, almost,” Daniels says. “I came up short, and Hope Chest helped. They have never given up on me, so I don’t give up, either.”
Daniels’ cancer has recurred, so she has to remain in treatment to keep the cancer at bay.
Hope Chest also provides gift cards for groceries and gasoline.
“If you live 50 miles away and you have to drive here for treatment every week or two, that gets expensive,” Laws says. “This and other expenses need to be met if people are going to be able to show up for treatment.”
Cancer Care WNC offers similar services to its patients through its LoveLights program, raising money through dress-down Fridays (staff members at Cancer Care pay $5 each to wear jeans on alternate Fridays), a Christmas candlelight service and other events.
Both nonprofits collect and distribute items that women in treatment need, such as fleece blankets, hats and scarves, makeup, ginger chews, activity books, herbal teas, crackers and other tummy-soothing snacks.
While most breast cancer charities fund research and education, Hope Chest and LoveLights focus on getting local women the day-to-day help they need, and if patients need more help, both organizations help them find the resources they need.
The American Cancer Society has a long history of helping cancer patients, and the chapter in Asheville offers several programs, including Reach to Recovery, a program that pairs new breast cancer patients with survivors, and Look Good, Feel Better, which pairs volunteer cosmetologists with patients to help them learn to use head scarves and apply makeup.
ACS also offers Road to Recovery, which provides transportation to and from treatments.
“Some people feel too weak or ill to drive after a treatment,” says Paige Crone, spokeswoman for ACS. “They might not have someone who’s available to drive them, so we do that.”
And at Mission Hospital, ACS offers wigs to women who have lost their hair to chemo and helps with patient navigation — getting through an often confusing and sometimes overwhelming medical and insurance system (email Kim Battle at email@example.com for information).
Allison Mann, who lost her mother to cancer, was looking for a way to help breast cancer survivors when she came across a program called Knitted Knockers. The website has patterns for knitted and crocheted prostheses, each of which takes a couple of hours to complete.
“Prosthetics are expensive,” Mann says. “Not everyone can afford them. They’re heavy, too, so some women just don’t want to wear them. I love to knit — it’s very therapeutic — and I love that I can do something to help women who need it.”
The Knitted Knockers are given free of charge to breast cancer survivors.
Another nonprofit helps women who don’t have insurance get mammograms to catch breast cancer early, when it’s most likely to be curable. Ladies Night Out offers free mammograms the first Thursday of every month for Buncombe County women who are uninsured, provided they meet financial guidelines.
With the help she has gotten, Butler says, she has been able to concentrate on beating cancer instead of worrying about paying the bills. She has been able to feel pampered by the gifts she received. During her fight, Butler has collected a notebook full of resources available to women with cancer, and she hopes to convert all her information to a one- or two-page resource guide.
“I’ve gotten so much help since I was diagnosed, I want to pass that on,” she says. “I found a guide with a calendar in Virginia and I want to do that here.”
Hope Chest for Women
American Cancer Society
Ladies Night Out
buncombecounty.org/pink, or call Wanda Anderson at 250-6006