Alleviating financial and legal stress for people affected by cancer

25 May 2017 | Sally Linwood

Cancer Council Legal and Financial advice service

Cancer can very quickly upend a life.

Whether it’s a personal diagnosis or that of a close family member or friend, there will be far-reaching impacts. The burden of a cancer diagnosis is too frequently exacerbated by the often unexpected financial stress and worry that come along with it.

In the Cancer Council Pro Bono team, we are reminded every day of the legal and financial issues that patients or carers need to grapple with through our conversations with people at varying stages of their illness – whether it is the fifty year old patient who, after paying insurance premiums for over thirty years, is facing major problems with an insurance claim; the longstanding employee who has been fired after his diagnosis; or the thirty year old mother who has been diagnosed with advanced breast cancer and told she has a matter of months to get her affairs in order.

Dr Ranjana Srivastava’s recent article in The Guardian puts a human face to the extreme levels of financial stress that many patients find themselves in. During a routine consultation she discovers that her patient is struggling to provide for his family, afford pain relief and get his affairs in order.

At one point in the conversation, Dr Srivastava’s patient asks her,  

“’Do you know a free lawyer?’ [to which she replies] ‘I thought you had that sorted.’

Dr Srivastava describes her next question as excruciating for them both.

‘How much was it?’

‘A hundred and fifty dollars, I couldn’t afford it.’

 ‘Let me see what I can do.’

‘I knew you’d help,’ he says, his voice breaking.

As it turned out, those were his final words. I couldn’t find a pro-bono lawyer, let alone one who would rush to a hospice on a Friday evening in pouring rain. My patient died without a will and the ramifications were painful for all. He wasn’t the first patient to die like this.”

Dr Srivastava’s article and the conversation she outlines hit home for all of us here in the Cancer Council Pro Bono team. We want to do all we can to avoid people being put in this situation by providing practical solutions and support.  

Through the Cancer Council Pro Bono Program we connect people affected by cancer with professionals who volunteer their time to provide legal, financial, workplace and small business advice. The service is free for people who cannot afford to pay.

One of our recent clients, John, was only 45 when he was diagnosed with lymphoma. John came to us for assistance with his will – he had put off thinking about his will for some time, but had been advised by his doctor to get his affairs in order. While the practical side of end of life can be daunting, having a will is a practical step that can provide much comfort, particularly for someone who has advanced illness. As Dr Srivastava comments, the ramifications of dying without a will can be painful for all.

When we spoke to John, he told us about some additional stressors. We learned that his wife Elli had recently left her job to care for him and they were struggling to manage mortgage repayments. We also discovered that John was unsure about his own workplace rights as he needed to take unpaid leave for treatment, and he was scared to approach his employer. The last thing the family needed was to lose another income at a time when out of pocket treatment costs were building up.

We were able to refer John to a lawyer for assistance with his will and an enduring power of attorney and to a human resources advisor for advice on his workplace entitlements and tips for communicating with his employer. We also referred John and Elli to a financial planner for advice on options to manage their mortgage debt.

Being able to access professional advice can significantly relieve stress and allow people to focus on their health, treatment and family.


Find out more about the financial and legal services available to people affected by cancer.

Anybody in financial distress or wishing to learn more about Cancer Council Pro Bono services should contact Cancer Council 13 11 20 Information and Support.

If you are a professional who would like to volunteer your time through the Cancer Council Pro Bono Program, we would love to hear from you – please email