Financial burden in the time of COVID: Taressa Hall
Taressa Hall thought she had her family’s financial health and her insurance needs covered. A very active mom of three children, she worked as a teacher at a Head Start program in Florida, where she called all her students, whether they were two or four years old, “babies.” Through work, in addition to her health insurance, she had purchased critical illness insurance. But her experiences with cancer reveal hardships during Covid that delayed her treatment and imperiled her financial uncertainty nevertheless.
One day in late summer of 2019, Taressa’s daughter hugged her, and Taressa felt something hard. With her physical already scheduled, she informed her doctor who initiated a series of tests. August 19, 2019, was Head Start’s first day of school, and that’s when Taressa learned she had stage III hormone receptor-positive, HER2-negative breast cancer. After a grueling surgery to insert her port, she had chemotherapy every Friday from September 2019 to the end of January 2020. She was due to have surgery in March 2020, but the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and her surgery was delayed until February 5, 2021. During her radiation treatment, Taressa needed emergency surgery to insert a weight-bearing screw in her hip and, after hospitalization, she stayed in rehab to learn to walk again. In the scans prior to this surgery, a lesion was found on her femur. Taressa’s breast cancer had metastasized.
Throughout most of Taressa’s breast cancer treatment, she had continued to work, only taking Friday afternoons off for her chemotherapy sessions. But her diagnosis of stage IV metastatic breast cancer changed her ability to work.
Adriana: Did you want to continue working?
Taressa: In the beginning when we were returning in-person, I wanted to work. But my students are very young, ages three through five, and need energy. Then I learned I wouldn’t have an assistant teacher because of funding. So, I couldn’t have even used the bathroom without anyone to stay with the children. Even walking from the parking lot to the room, I got winded. It was too much for me. And everyone I worked with knew it; if I said I couldn’t do it, I really couldn’t do it. They had seen me work through so much.
Adriana: How did you get by without work?
Taressa: I became eligible for permanent disability, but first I had to deplete my savings to qualify. My oldest, who is still in high school, started working part-time to help with the bills, but I want her to focus on school. So, in the waiting room in the cancer center, after I heard people talking about grants they applied for, I asked them questions. They said, “Contact your social worker.” I didn’t even know I had a social worker! So, then I got in touch with mine, and I started applying to foundations for help.
Adriana: What was that process like?
Taressa: I’m thankful that there are these foundations out there, helping out. Some places like Susan G. Komen and the Living Beyond Breast Cancer Fund didn’t have a lot of red tape, and I received aid fast. But some of the applications were very lengthy and very challenging. I could do my part of the application and have it ready, but, for example, my doctor’s office might not have completed their part before the deadline. Retrieving a lot of the documents was hard during Covid, especially letters from doctors or employers when everything was shut down. Some places wanted the book of your life - certification from the doctor, a letter from my employer that I was on medical leave, a letter from Social Security, the Department of Children and Family, three months of bank statements, and more. All that and you have to keep track of deadlines, too. Even if you gathered all that information, you might not get the grant.
Good thing I had a printer and a scanner at home. What if I hadn’t? I had to go to the post office when I wasn’t feeling good to mail a packet of paper, waiting in a long line because only three people could go in at a time. And then some foundations didn’t even respond at all.
But I felt like it was worth it. Because of the assistance I got from these applications, I kept my house. I paid my bills. I had to push through, even when I wasn’t feeling well. I understand that foundations want to make sure their money is being used properly, and they need documentation.
Adriana: What do you think foundations should know about the application process?
Taressa: I wish the foundations were more patient-friendly. If they would think about requirements more and how it could be less of a burden to people who aren’t feeling well. There are a lot of things they ask patients to do to meet the requirements, and it’s stressful. Surgery and treatments cost thousands of dollars. One of my medications is $600. The application is important, and, of course, verification from the doctor, and I wish that could be sufficient for these organizations.
Adriana: What advice would you give someone who is looking for financial assistance from foundations?
Taressa: Try your best to be structured. Keep things in separate folders: one folder for receipts, another for bank statements, another for pay stubs – basically, a folder for each item you need. I used the portals to get my receipts. Make sure you get a letter from employer about your leave that’s detailed with your dates and reasons, including what changed in your ability to work beside cancer. Read the applications and what they need and try to plan ahead.
Adriana: What advice would you give someone experiencing financial hardship from their breast cancer diagnosis?
Taressa: The most important thing is you need to talk with your social worker. Your social worker can help you find foundations and other organizations that provide assistance. If you don’t know who your social worker is, ask your nurse navigator. Also, google “cancer foundations,” and call them. Get their information. Some of them might even refer you to another foundation.
Advocate for yourself – I know it’s hard.
Adriana: How are you doing now?
Taressa: I still need help financially. I’m still applying to foundations. My health is doing better. I’ve had to slow down. I can’t do things like I would, like going to all my children’s events. It’s a different quality of life.
I’ve always been loving and giving, but I’m more empathetic, too. Now I’m learning to take care of myself first because I’m more conscious about my health. And, it’s a good thing I have so much experience with applications; now I’m helping my daughter with scholarship applications for college.