Give Cancer Patients a Break on Student Loans

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Washington, D.C.-, September 22, 2017 | comments

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has recently drawn criticism for proposing a long list of cuts to higher education programs. Congress must mull those potentially traumatic trims while reauthorizing standard financing for students and colleges, but there’s one positive change that might sneak by in the process: the bipartisan Deferment for Active Cancer Treatment Act, which would let borrowers defer their student loan payments when they get a cancer diagnosis — and for six more months after their active treatment is completed. It’s a courtesy Congress extends now to borrowers who are unemployed, deployed in the military or volunteering with the Peace Corps.

Such a deferment would have helped me immensely in March 2015. I was an adjunct professor, at the University of Maryland, and after months of crippling abdominal pain, I scheduled surgery during my the school’s spring break to have several ovarian cysts removed. Although my blood test results for ovarian cancer had come back positive, my doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital had assured me that the test was notoriously unreliable. Also, I was much too young to be dealing with malignant tumors: The median age for an American ovarian cancer patient is 63. I was an otherwise healthy 36-year-old.

Chances were very good that I did not have cancer.

But I did.

On March 20, five days after that surgery, my oncologist called with the worst possible pathology report: I had mixed clear cell carcinoma, a rare, aggressive form of cancer. Mine arose from endometriosis, a disease that causes a woman’s uterine lining to go rogue and grow throughout her abdominal cavity. We needed to schedule a second surgery as soon as possible.

This “debulking” surgery, an extensive procedure to remove all possible additional cancer, was scheduled for April 2. My doctor had no idea how far the cancer had spread. Depending on the next round of pathology reports, my surgery could be followed by three to 12 months of chemotherapy and radiation.

 

I would have to curtail my work as a freelance journalist, and there was no way that I could return to my job at the university, at least not that semester. I had less than two weeks to prepare, and my administrative to-do list looked like this:

1. Call the university human resources department.

2. Figure out how to file paperwork for a medical leave.

 

3. Call my boss in the English department. Apologetically tell him I was leaving midsemester. Help him find a replacement. Finish grading my students’ papers.

4. Figure out what I was going to do about my student loan payments.

Would you believe that Nos. 1-3 were infinitely easier than No. 4?

I was shocked that my student loan servicer wouldn’t allow me to defer my payments without penalty. I had cancer. I was about to lose more than half my income for who knew how long. All I could do was put my loans into forbearance, causing them to accrue additional interest.

My cancer diagnosis meant my master’s degree from Syracuse University was going to cost far more than the $50,000 I was already on pace to pay for it.

The proposed House bill would end that kind of worry for future cancer patients. Each year, more than 70,000 Americans ages 15 to 39 are given a cancer diagnosis. That number is growing; according to the American Cancer Society, while the rates at which older Americans and children get cancer are actually down, young adult cancer rates are rising. People born in 1990 have double the risk of colon cancer and quadruple the risk of rectal cancer compared with people born around 1950, the society reports.

At the same time, the average borrower owes $34,000 in student loans, up 62 percent in the past decade. So there are more cancer patients with heavier student loan burdens.

 

The bill was introduced in June by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican of Florida, and Ed Perlmutter, Democrat of Colorado. More than 30 members have joined them as co-sponsors. The bill is a stand-alone resolution, although ideally it would be added as an amendment to the higher education financing reauthorization bill. But a fight looms over whether to continue the Obama administration’s public service loan forgiveness program, as well as funding for federal work-study programs, historically black colleges, Pell grants and Perkins loans, and deferment could be easily overlooked.

 

As for me, I just hit the two-year survivorship mark, knock on wood. I still look back on the task of staying current with my loan payments as one of the most stressful parts of my treatment and recovery, and I hate to think of others’ having the same experience While I know that giving cancer patients a break on their student loans may seem a minor issue, I also know that it’s not at all minor to patients.

And it will demonstrate that Congress has a heart.

Content originally published by the New York Times on September 22, 2017.
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