Bev MacGregor is freefalling through a gap in Canada's social safety net.
The 52-year-old Chilliwack mother and grandmother has been battling cancer since mid-September and, although the fight is long from over, her money has run out.
Just before she heads into her first round of chemotherapy this month, her employment insurance (EI) will dry up.
After raising two kids on her own, she has a few dollars in an RRSP, a small townhouse and a 1998 Chevy Venture.
Until she's willing to lose those, welfare isn't an option.
Canadian Pension Plan disability benefits? Breast cancer isn't a disability, she's been told-twice.
"I don't know where to turn," she wrote to the Times in an email. "This seems so wrong."
But her predicament is all too familiar, according to Canadian Breast Cancer Network board chair, Cathy Ammendolea, a breast cancer survivor herself.
"These people, they fall into a no-man's land," she said of women like MacGregor who manage to raise kids on their own but have few financial resources when faced with a breast cancer diagnosis.
"It's a big, big burden, and that shouldn't have to be part of the disease when you get a diagnosis," Ammendolea said.
According to a three-year study released by the Canadian Cancer Action Network last week, however, loss of income and an increase in costs for everything from uninsured anti-nausea medication to hospital parking fees devastate many cancer patients.
And, like Mac-Gregor, they are often blindsided because of a false sense of security.
"Until cancer comes into their own lives, they believe the myth that all health care is free," reads the report. "Most never imagined that they could face such difficult challenges at such a vulnerable time of their lives."
That double vulnerability doesn't sit well with MacGregor, who describes herself as a Weeble that's wobbled but hasn't fallen down despite facing many challenges as a single parent over the years.
"I hate being in a position to ask for financial help," she said. "I've always been able to provide for myself and my family."
The cancer diagnosis she got on Sept. 12 terrified her, she said, but from the start she was determined not to let the disease get the better of her emotionally.
"That was a hard day," she said. "My knees were like jelly and I bawled my eyes out for probably about two hours, and then I just went to my faith. I decided cancer can have my left breast . . . but it can't take who I am, my thoughts, my humour."
She had all of her left breast removed Sept. 27 and she isn't shy about showing off her sternum-to-armpit scar or about irreverently making light of her loss.
For Halloween, she dressed up as the Uniboober, complete with grey hoodie, sunglasses and a wanted poster of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski pinned to her back.
But finding out-after years of paying CPP and EI premiums-that 15 weeks of EI benefits was all she was entitled to in her time of need, has rocked her faith in the system.
"You don't choose to get sick," she said. "And here you're only allowed to get sick for 15 weeks and then you're kicked to the curb."
Treatment for breast cancer takes an average of 38 weeks but can often last as long as a year, according to a 2010 Canadian Breast Cancer Network report on the economic impact of breast cancer diagnoses.
Because EI sickness benefits last for only 15 weeks, the study found some women were going back to work before they had fully recovered.
"They're zombies," Ammendolea said. "As a cancer survivor myself, I know how long it takes to recover, and it's nowhere near the time that is provided by the employment insurance."
The 2010 report called on the federal government to increase EI sickness benefits for women like MacGregor, and in September 2011 Quebec Liberal MP Denis Coderre introduced a private members bill in the House of Commons to increase benefits from 15 to 50 weeks.
But that bill was defeated in February with the help of Chilliwack Conservative MP Mark Strahl.
MacGregor took her story to Strahl on Nov. 2, and he encouraged her to apply for CPP disability benefits and said he would pass her concerns about EI on to the human resources minister, MacGregor said.
She said she was very disappointed when she found out later that he had voted against extending EI.
"Don't sit there and tell me you're going to talk to the minister when you bloody well voted against it in the first place," she told the Times.
But Strahl said a massive expansion of federal benefits like EI or CPP wouldn't be fiscally responsible.
"The majority of businesses in my riding are small businesses and I think driving up payroll taxes is going to result in less people working," he told the Times. "If they can't afford to make their contributions, they're going to hire less people."
Despite the November CCAN report calling for improved federal supports for Canadians facing chronic illness, Strahl said the Conservative government has done a lot already, like introducing family caregiver and CPP tax credits as well as expanding the tax amounts that can be claimed as medical expenses.
The provincial government also needs to take on some of the burden, he said.
The CCAN report seconds that point, calling for improvements to provincial welfare programs as well so people in MacGregor's position can retain more of their assets.
The current system that requires patients to drain savings and liquidate assets before they qualify for benefits leaves some forever dependent on government programs, according to the report.
"In some cases a cancer diagnosis began a financial tailspin that pushed families into debt, distress, bankruptcy and sometimes a lifetime on social assistance," it reads.
That's not where MacGregor wants to end up, so despite her fears about her first round of chemotherapy and all the unknowns that go with it, she says she'll keep speaking out to keep others from being blindsided by the system the way she has been.
"People need to know these things," she said. "I might not be able to change this legislation, but we've got to stand up as Canadians."
© Copyright 2013