Opinion: A better deal on the costs of illness

Peter Cardy

In an interview with The Times, Adair Turner, chairman of the Pensions Commission, said there were people retiring today who had "an annual income, longevity improvements and spousal benefits that no one has ever enjoyed before". Good news indeed for the comfortably retired, but many readers of Third Sector will, like me, have taken a sharp intake of breath when they read this.

At least half of those I meet who are affected by cancer suffer not only from their tumours, but also from the financial consequences: the costs of travel and hospital parking for long courses of treatment; extra heating to counter the effects of arduous treatment; keeping the washing machine running every day to deal with incontinence - the list is endless, the effects devastating. Like many other increasingly prevalent diseases, cancer predominantly affects older people - those same comfortable pensioners.

It's hard to exaggerate the impact of a sudden onset disease - one day you have an interesting future, the next you're struggling to cope with the extra costs of your illness. And when the money starts to run out, you're battling with the benefit system too. Macmillan launched its Better Deal campaign last year to try to persuade an obdurate Department for Work and Pensions that the benefit system should be modified. One of its immediate defences was "if we do it for cancer, we'll have to do it for every similar disease" - at least it got the point. Ken Livingstone got it too, and agreed to waive the congestion charge for everyone undertaking long courses of treatment in central London hospitals.

Distinctive features of cancer mean people really do need specialist help, and we've been funding a number of cancer benefits advice services.

When we talked to the Department of Health about extending these, it had the same mantra: "If we do it for cancer, we'll have to do it for every similar disease." I don't have a problem with that - many health service improvements have been piloted amid the drama of cancer.

This year, the Better Deal campaign focuses on travel and parking costs for cancer treatment - these can amount to £380 for a six-week course of chemotherapy. The DWP and the DoH keep passing the buck - our task is to get one of them to take hold of the problem. Meanwhile, we'll continue our programme of making small grants to people hit in the wallet by cancer - £7.5m this year and rising.

- Peter Cardy is chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Relief.

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