Dermot Brannigan realised the real value of a critical illness plan after his wife was diagnosed with cancer
As an independent financial adviser (IFA), I've been aware of the need for critical illness cover (CIC) since I came across the product in the early '90s. I know the cancer statistics and understand the claims procedures. For example, the first claim a client of mine made was one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had. Particularly as he'd forgotten how much he was insured for. The relief on his face as I delivered the cheque will stay with me forever.
But in April 2018 everything surrounding CIC came sharply into focus. After a routine screening, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I'd set us up with CIC policies years ago and, given their age, the claims payment was simple, confirmation of the diagnosis and the money was paid.
I have always recommended CIC for my clients, but I wonder if I didn't completely believe in the product.
Down the years my view on CIC has been that detection rates and treatment are now so good and therefore the survival rates are much better. Both my wife and I have lost parents to cancer so know only too well how modern medicine could have reversed those outcomes.
I've even heard myself saying, unless you've ignored symptoms, or the detection was so late, it's likely you'll have treatment and be back to work within six months. If you're employed then it's likely you'll receive full pay during this time, so really the cover is a bit of a luxury. How wrong I was.
My wife's employer was wonderful and she was entitled to over six months' full pay. There was no quibble around her taking time off. We were assured even when she was ready to return, this would be on a phased basis.
But what about me?
From the moment we were given the results my view was we would go through the process together. I realised I wouldn't be pulled and prodded and filled with drugs, but I'd be with her for everything. I had no idea what was involved but I was determined not to waver from this.
After the diagnosis we were told treatment would commence within 31 days. This involved surgery, then possibly chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy.
From there we were into a system which was filled with appointment after appointment. Daily there was a letter either summarising a recent meeting, or setting a date for a new one. It was relentless. We went from one room to another or even from building to building.
At the beginning I was determined to approach these appointments as I would any other. Prepare, book time out, have the appointment, then back to work. Increasingly this proved difficult.
What no one tells prepares you for is the immense mental pressure. In some respects, and I know my wife feels this way, it can be easier for the person being treated. It's all a new experience and they just think about what's next and how they feel about it. For the person caring, they have completely different concerns, not least how can they be of greatest support?
One thing a carer can do is to alleviate some of the worry. We'd set off in good time for appointments, to make sure we didn't miss her slot or hold anyone else up. Instead of returning to work after an appointment, it became more and more important to talk through what we'd just learned. How was she feeling now? What had I heard compared to what she had? A meeting with the oncologist could take the whole morning taking that all into account.
The operation was the easy bit. Into theatre at 5pm and home by 8pm. It was such a small lump, undetectable to touch, but "a nasty little beast" as one nurse described it!
Every diagnosis is different
Some just need radiotherapy. The histology of my wife's cells meant what followed was chemotherapy.
There was an amazing amount of trips to the hospital to prepare for this. Blood tests, consultations and a PICC line fitting. A fantastic piece of kit which fed into a vein just above the elbow, running up the arm and into the chest. This was used to administer all the drugs and take bloods.
Wonderful as it was, this piece of kit had to be flushed out and re-dressed every week which meant weekly trips to the hospital. The nurses in that clinic became her best friends for 18 weeks, which was a source of comfort and support for us both.
Chemo was as tough as we'd feared. It took most of the day, though the drug infusion could take as little as an hour. Waiting for pharmacy was common, but the worst part was the cold cap - a rubber cap which fits on your head and literally freezes it to try and prevent hair loss. Not sure we'd recommend this to anyone.
My wife would generally spend the next two to three days in bed. You may think that would give the carer time to catch up with work or other duties. But I was filled with the worry of what if she wakes up and needs me?
Chemo was six sessions at three-weekly intervals. She was always well enough to work from home for the last week of the cycle but the ability to travel 40 miles by train into work decreased as the cycles went on.
The six sessions were split between two drugs. The second set was completely different to the first. After session four she was up and about the next day full of energy. Two days later unbearable pain hit her like a train and her temperature rose to such a dangerous point.
The medics drill into you how critically important it is to check your temperature at least daily. Chemo wipes out your immune system, so there is a real risk of infection and sepsis. When you ring to tell them it's high, they give you an hour to get there and are ready with IV antibiotics. The raised temperature resulted in two visits to hospital in a week and an admission for several days.
As a carer this brought some relief, but you have so much to catch up on it's tough to prioritise.
Chemo ended and after a few weeks' break it was time for radiotherapy. Swindon doesn't have its own unit so we had to travel to Oxford. Only 35 miles away, but either rush hour traffic or waiting for a parking space meant we allowed two hours to get there. Some days we were early enough for a coffee beforehand. Other days, she was dropped at the door while I searched for a parking space.
The treatment itself was rarely longer than 15 minutes; sometimes she was done before I'd parked! The tiring part was this was a daily procedure for four weeks. Family and friends shared the driving which helped immensely.
From an operation in May, we finished just a few days before Christmas.
Radiotherapy wasn't the end. Based on cell readings another drug was given by injection at three-weekly intervals for 18 sessions starting in August 2018 alongside chemo, ending in August 2019. There are still six-monthly injections, annual scans and daily tablets. So much for me thinking there would be treatment for just six months.
The value of a claim
The money from our CIC policy has been invaluable. We didn't use it to clear the mortgage, as that was manageable and my wife was entitled to over six month's full pay from her employer. But it was so valuable for topping up any reduction in income I experienced and the treats which made some hard times more enjoyable. We're still feeling its benefit during this lockdown period.
My view on CIC now is you should cover yourself for something, even if it's just six months' salary, maybe a year. If you can afford more, do so. The pay-out will always be more than you've paid in premiums.
But CIC shouldn't just be considered as the benefit it gives the patient. How would you cope if your partner contracted an illness? You may have to take time off to care for them, beyond the amount of sick days or holiday your employer will give. Money provides comfort to experience things which just give you some feel good factor. The smallest things can often bring the biggest rewards.
Don't forget the hospital car parking charges, fuel, wear and tear on the car, and various ancillary items such as coffees, trips out and anything else to make the whole process just that little more bearable.
I mentioned earlier, the main thing I could bring to this was to alleviate much of the worry. What benefit was that if my wife was worried about her treatment affecting my business?
I had no idea about all this before 2018. It's changed our lives forever.
It would have been a great deal harder without some sort of financial safety net. We're still enjoying the benefits of the net two years later, but then we're still feeling the effects of the diagnosis two years later. Don't make the mistake I made, and underestimate this.
IFA Dermot Brannigan is an appointed representative of Sanlam Partnerships
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COVER Podcast #10