Pay for College or Cancer Treatment? Let’s End That Awful Choice

Roughly 72,000 Americans between the ages of 15-39 are diagnosed with cancer each year. That number is six times higher than cancers diagnosed at age 14 or younger. While there have been advances in cancer research and care for pediatric and adult patients, men and women who fall in the adolescent and young adult age range lack the help and hope they deserve.

One small thing that can be done to help alleviate some of the stress is student loan deferment – and a bill to address this exact point is under consideration in Congress. It merits full support, because no young person should have to choose between college or treatment for cancer.

Did you know active cancer treatment is not a reason for deferment in the United States? Instead, cancer patients undergoing treatment must continue paying their loans or go into forbearance, which means interest is accruing the entire time they are in treatment. The Samfund, an organization dedicated to providing non-medical financial assistance to young adults impacted by cancer, reported that on average patients have more than $45,000 in student loan debt even two years after treatment. These are the types of non-medical expenses not covered by health insurance that uniquely impact the adolescent and young adult cancer community.

One organization working to make a difference is Critical Mass: The Young Adult Cancer Alliance. The group has worked with Republicans and Democrats to introduce the Deferment for Active Cancer Treatment Act (HR 2976). The legislation would give adolescents and young adults the option of pausing student loan interest and payment during cancer care. This would greatly reduce stress and financial worries, ensuring patients can focus of surviving and thriving after a cancer diagnosis.

Adolescent and young adult patients face specific barriers at all stages of cancer care. Many are uninsured or underinsured. Some are new college graduates beginning their careers. They should not have to choose between paying their bills or their mounting health care costs. It is this financial toxicity that causes undo stress – and can actually hinder the success of their therapy.

We see these needs each day at Moffitt Cancer Center, which is one of the few institutions in the United States to have a program dedicated to helping adolescent and young adult patients navigate their cancer journey. Moffitt’s Adolescent and Young Adult Program provides tools and information for patients and their families, including support groups, fertility preservation and counseling, and access to cutting-edge therapies and clinical trials.

National action, however, would help even more young patients. I was fortunate enough to be in Washington, D.C., when the bill, HR 2976, was introduced and I had the chance to testify at a congressional briefing alongside several young adult cancer survivors, one of whom said that her student loan debt had doubled to almost $100,000 due to missed payments and interest that piled up during her time in cancer treatment The proposed loan deferment for people battling cancer could be a small but important first step – one that could help inform Congress of the need for further resources, structure and standards for adolescent and young adult cancer patients. They need to have their voices heard. They deserve to see this bill become law.


Dr. Damon Reed is the program leader of the Adolescent and Young Adult Program at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla.

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