When I read about the raft of new austerity measures that are being rolled out, it makes my blood boil. These cuts – which include the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) – will hit thousands of disadvantaged people including those who, like me, have had cancer.
When I had breast cancer six years ago and was unable to work, receiving ESA was the only thing that kept our heads above water.
From now on, some people with cancer who are assessed as too ill to work but able to do ‘work related activity’ such as training, will get just under £74 per week. This is a drop from £102 – a cut of almost a third.
When cancer came along, my family nearly went under. We were close to losing our three-bed home and could barely afford to eat.
We used our life savings just trying to get by and we racked up £16,000 of debt. As well as looking after my son Euan, then 11, I worked as a receptionist in a doctor’s surgery and my husband had a temporary job as an administrator.
When I was diagnosed with cancer, I was signed off sick and got a full wage so I focused all my energy on facing treatment – a mastectomy, four months of chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. But after two months, my salary dropped to half pay and we struggled to pay the mortgage and council tax.
Our payment protection insurance had lapsed and we had a shortfall of £350 per month. The demand letters rolled in and we were faced with eviction.
I couldn’t believe that having cancer could leave us homeless.
It was only when our local paper got involved that our payments were reduced, but even then we struggled. We sold our car to pay off some of the mortgage but I still had to get to medical appointments almost every day. I had to do two-hour round trips to hospital by bus, which cost around £100 per month.
The costs stacked up: we had to pay for childcare when I was too ill to collect Euan. My husband took time off to look after me, which he didn’t get paid for. I lost two stone in weight and had to buy new clothes that fitted to keep warm.
We started cutting back. When I came home from my chemo treatment, exhausted and chilled to the bone (feeling the cold is a side effect of treatment) I’d keep my coat, hat and gloves on as we couldn’t afford to put on the heating.
I ate soup and my husband cut back on his food portions so Euan would have enough to eat. I nearly stopped radiotherapy because I couldn’t afford to pay for transport.
My mental health suffered because of all the worry of paying bills, on top of the worry of cancer. I had constant nightmares that I was at my own funeral.
At first I thought my drop in income was temporary until I finished treatment, but I was left with long-term side effects including soul-destroying exhaustion that left me unable to lift my head off the pillow and life-threatening infections that meant I was in and out of hospital like a yo-yo.
I was too ill to return to work. I wanted to go back when I was ready as I liked my job, my colleagues, the sense of purpose – and we needed the money. Getting Employment and Support Allowance allowed me to do that. I was put in the Work-related activity group (WRAG), for those who are independently assessed as too ill to work but can take part in training such as CV workshops to get them ready for work.
Recent figures show that more than 2,500 cancer patients in Britain are currently in this group. When I received the benefit, along with Disability Living Allowance, it eased the pressure knowing I wasn’t forced to work and had some money coming in. It helped me pay for food, buy Euan’s school uniform and pay some money off the mortgage.
I was also grateful for two grants from Macmillan Cancer Support which helped me pay my mortgage and every day expenses.
Thanks to ESA, I was able to keep my job, going in for a few hours each week and I’m now back working full time.
I worry with this new cut that people who are ill will go back to work too early because they won’t be able to afford not to. That’s not good for their health or for employers.
Thousands of people with cancer struggle financially as it is and this cut could have a severe impact on them. What if, like me, they end up facing homelessness? Or can’t afford to eat? Or can’t have treatment?
The Government has a duty to help people in need. That’s the whole point of benefits. Cancer patients, MPs from all parties, and charities like Macmillan Cancer Support campaigned hard to stop this cut going ahead but the Government ploughed ahead.
It justified the cut by offering to provide more support to get people back into employment but this isn’t enough for people with cancer who, like me, couldn’t work and just needed financial help.
I just hope that the Government commits to ensure there are no more cuts to this benefit. No one else should have to go through what I did.
To find out how you can get support with money worries during cancer visit macmillan.org.uk/moneyworries
Lynn Laing, Edinburgh