The High Cost of Treating Cancer

Leveraging life insurance to combat the Financial Toxicity Crisis

By Adam Balinsky

Firefighters work in one of the most dangerous professions that exist, and the perils don’t end when they’re off duty or retired. Many of the toxins that firefighters regularly encounter–heavy smoke, asbestos, and burning chemicals, to name a few–can lead to serious health problems down the road like cancer.

A recent study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) revealed that cancer is currently the leading cause of death in firefighters. Further, higher rates of certain types of cancer were found among the firefighters studied vs. the general U.S. population–most commonly digestive, oral, respiratory, and urinary cancers.

These aforementioned findings are not based on anecdotal evidence. In fact, the NIOSH study was conducted over the course of several years and included almost 30,000 firefighters from Chicago, San Francisco, and Philadelphia.

The NIOSH study is not the only body of research on the topic either. “Firefighters are at an increased risk of developing cancer,” reports the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. In a recent interview with NBC News, a Boston fire chief told reporters: “We’re seeing a lot of younger members in their early 40s, who’ve got 20 years on the job, who are developing these cancers at a very young age.”

(Andrew Gaines photo)

Unfortunately, when firefighters face a cancer diagnosis, it can be more than a health crisis. As is the case with a growing number of Americans, it can create a financial disaster, too.

The high cost of treating cancer–from out-of-pocket expenses and deductibles to health insurance co-pays and time spent away from work–can wreak havoc on a patient’s finances. Indeed, there’s even a term for this: “financial toxicity.”

The National Cancer Institute defines financial toxicity as the “problems a cancer patient has related to the cost of treatment.” The Institute notes that a number of factors can determine just how severe a patient’s financial toxicity is, such as the type of cancer, the course of treatment required, age, race, and income.

In taking a closer look at the astronomical prices associated with cancer treatment, it’s no surprise that patients frequently face mounting medical bills. Today, the average cost for treatment runs in the $150,000 range, though some are significantly more. On a national level, the United States is expected to spend a total of $173 billion on cancer treatment in the year 2020, according to research from the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Fortunately, however, many firefighters confronting a cancer diagnosis already have access to a powerful resource that can help prevent and mitigate financial toxicity. While health insurance, personal savings, and Medicare are all extremely important, one’s life insurance policy can also play a critical role.

Many firefighters believe that a life insurance policy is unattainable or too expensive given their dangerous line of work. Thankfully, that’s not the case. Carriers will often issue standard rate policies to firefighters despite their high-risk profession. Some carriers may even offer preferred rates to those who serve and protect. If a firefighter is healthy–eating right and exercising–the price of a policy can come down further.

Now that a life insurance policy is within reach, how can it be leveraged?

It’s often assumed that life insurance policies are a set and inflexible tool–one designed only to benefit loved ones in the event of your own passing. That’s not an entirely accurate representation, however. Life insurance policies do have flexibility, and they can be used in creative ways to prevent financial toxicity.

Some choose to borrow directly from their policy provider if the policy has cash value (which, oftentimes, it does not). Others may sell the policy through a life settlement, also referred to as a viatical settlement. This absolute sale gives the policy holder more than the cash surrender value in a single, lump-sum payment. The process does take longer than some of the other alternatives–often between four and six months. A viatical settlement transaction is also irreversible and does generate taxable income.

While these two options can work in certain cases, there is a third route that doesn’t take as much time to arrange, forfeits fewer dollars to fees and taxes, allows the individual to retain control of the policy, and leaves funds for beneficiaries.

For those battling an advanced stage illness, there are specialty lenders that will advance a portion of their life insurance policy with no restrictions. These funds can help individuals cover critical treatments and medicines, take a memory-making vacation with family, make their rent or mortgage payments, secure reliable transportation, or cover other expenses.

(Josh Appel photo)

These lenders offer qualifying applicants a loan secured by the life insurance policy that includes an initial advance. The individual’s policy remains in place while the lender takes over all premium payments. Ultimately, the advance is repaid using the proceeds of the policy, and remaining funds are paid to the beneficiaries. This process can take as little as four to six weeks–significantly less time than a viatical settlement.

If you’re a firefighter facing a cancer diagnosis or other serious illness and concerned about financial toxicity and caring for your family, know your full range of options. It is possible to leverage your life insurance policy to help stay financially healthy, maintain peace of mind, and focus on your treatment.

Adam Balinsky is president of Fifth Season Financial, a specialty lender providing solutions to alleviate the financial strain associated with advanced-stage illness. Fifth Season’s Funds for Living and Giving (FLAG) program allows clients to receive an advance on their life insurance policy while preserving funds for beneficiaries to receive in the future. For more information, call (866) 459-1271 or visit

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