Although dealing with cancer has been quite a challenge for Ellen Phillipson, the time endured struggling to survive without a pay cheque has also caused significant duress.
“I think in some ways I’ve been more stressed about my finances than the chemo,” said the View Royal resident.
“Not only do you have to fight for your life, you have to fight to survive.”
A diagnosis of stage one breast cancer on December 22, 2016 resulted in a mastectomy on January 19 of this year, followed by rounds of chemotherapy that began on March 22.
Phillipson, who has worked all of her life – the past 10 years as a room attendant at a Langford hotel – was not prepared to be without a pay cheque for an extended period.
“In a matter of weeks my life was flipped upside down,” she noted. “You’re only allowed 15 weeks when you’re on medical EI, and I was still undergoing chemo when that ran out in April,” Phillipson said.
She soon found out her options were limited to collecting social assistance, or trying to access short-term disability through her Canada Pension Plan once her employment insurance payments ceased.
When she found out that process can take three to four months, she applied for social assistance in June, which provides $610 a month. Her application for CPP short-term disability, which she submitted in June, was turned down last week. She said the reason given is that she doesn’t have what’s considered a severe or prolonged medical condition.
Severe disability payments are approved when there is a mental or physical condition that prevents a return to work for an extended period. Prolonged payments are approved when the time away from work is likely to be long-term and of indefinite duration, or likely to result in death, Phillipson explained. She could appeal the decision, but that could take another three months, and she hopes to be back to work before that.
“If I didn’t have roommates I would have been homeless or living in my mom’s basement,” she noted. She is also on the hook for the cost of some of the medications she needs because not all are covered through the Medical Services Plan. As it is now, she will have to take hormone therapy medication for the rest of her life.
“You work your whole life, have a good steady job and a good wage,” she said. “It’s really scary how fast the money goes when there’s none coming in.”
Phillipson is grateful she received a $5,000 grant from the B.C. Hospitality Foundation, which assists hotel and hospitality workers in crises. “I don’t know what I would have done without their help.”
Phillipson, 53, is adamant about wanting to share a word of caution with people who may find themselves in the same situation.
“This is not a cry for help, I’m not looking for handouts,” she emphasized, pointing out this is the first time she has ever contacted a news organization.
“If it helps one person be prepared for the personal hardships you can face, it’s worth it. As soon as you’re diagnosed, take care of all the paper work immediately. Once you’re diagnosed, everything happens so fast. You’re so sick, lying in bed. If you’re not prepared (financially, and for the necessary applications and paperwork) it just adds a whole other level of stress.”
Phillipson has an appointment with her oncologist on Oct. 10, and hopes to return to work at the end of that month. “I’m just not physically strong enough at this point,” she said. “I’m doing good right now, but you never know with this disease.”