The number of cancer patients seeking support with heating bills has more than doubled in a year, according to figures from one of Britain’s largest cancer charities shared exclusively with Channel 4 News.
More than 10,000 people received financial assistance from Macmillan Cancer Support between January and the end of March, with almost 7,000 of those needing help for heating costs – a 58% increase compared with the same period last year.
Charities are calling on the government to look at targeted measures, such as speeding up the processing of disability payments, to help cancer patients with spiralling bills and expenses.
A UK government spokesperson told Channel 4 News that ministers “recognise the pressures that people are facing with the rising cost of living” and they are “improving outcomes for cancer patients across England”.
Mother-of-two Joanna Jonathan has stage four lung cancer.
The cost of living crisis has put more pressure on her as she undergoes treatment.
“My real fear is dying having not really lived – and I feel like I am barely existing right now,” the 36-year-old said.
She was forced to give up work after being diagnosed in 2019, while her husband Daniel was made redundant during the pandemic when his company said they were unable to accommodate him shielding with his family.
The couple now rely on Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payments (PIP), the benefit for people with long-term physical or mental illness, to meet the cost of rocketing food and energy bills.
“When you become a Mum you want to give everything for your children,” she said.
“If I make it another two years, I will be very lucky.”
She added: “If we are having to choose between heating and food – that is heartbreaking.”
The prospect of continued rising costs means Daniel may have to return to work even as Joanna’s condition becomes increasingly fragile.
“That’s terrifying – knowing how ill I can fall and how quickly that can happen and that I could be alone with the children,” she said. “Freya, she’s three, maybe I could teach her to go to a neighbour or grandma’s or use my phone to get help.”
She added: “Sometimes I think: how did this become my life? How did we get here?”
Dr Richard Simcock, an NHS oncologist based in Sussex, said he was increasingly concerned about the physical and emotional toll the cost of living crisis was having on his patients.
“I have been looking after people who have continued to work in very demanding physical jobs through the fatigue of chemotherapy because they simply couldn’t afford not to – I worry about peoples’ ability to maintain treatment,” he added.
“Good nutrition is important; staying warm is important; maintaining good hygiene in the home such as keeping your washing machine running regularly is important.”
NHS England Chief Executive Amanda Pritchard said last month she had been warned about the impact of energy bills on patients on ventilators at home and how fuel poverty could increase pressure on the health service.
Paula Chadwick, the chief executive of Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, said the cost of living crisis was “already having a devastating impact on patients”, with more requests for assistance with energy bills and hospital travel costs.
On average, it takes five months for PIP applicants to be successfully processed, according to government statistics.
Noah Hayward, 20, from Swansea, was studying and working part-time until he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in February.
He is still waiting for a decision as to whether his PIP application has been approved, relying on family and support from the Tom Bowdidge Youth Cancer Foundation in the meantime.
He told Channel 4 News: “We are really struggling at the moment. We’re having to minimise on shopping and work seriously hard to cut down on the amount of gas and electricity we’re using.”
Minesh Patel, head of policy at Macmillan, said: “People with cancer need to live, not just survive. It’s vital that the Government takes urgent steps to reduce the delays in the system, so people get the help they deserve when they need it most.”
Universal Credit payments increased by 3.1% this month, but the Bank of England expects inflation to hit at least 8% this Spring meaning that increase won’t cover the rises in cost of living.
A government spokesperson did not respond directly to the calls for more cost of living support for medically vulnerable groups, but said: “We are improving outcomes for cancer patients across England and our 10-Year Cancer Plan will set out how we will lead Europe in cancer care.
“We are taking action to support households – including by cutting fuel duty, raising the threshold at which people start to pay National Insurance, and cutting taxes for the lowest-paid workers on Universal Credit so they can keep more of what they earn.”
Producer: Jamie Roberton