Local Man Andy Janning Advocates Easing the Financial Trauma for Cancer Patients
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Photography Provided by Andy Janning
Nearly four years ago, when Andy Janning’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, the family was forced to walk through the emotional, physical and financial trauma of cancer. Soon after, Janning was given the opportunity by the National Credit Union Foundation to produce a documentary about the financial crisis of cancer in America and how financial institutions, especially credit unions, can do something to ease that financial trauma. The project became a seven-part documentary called “Side Effects.”
“My eyes have been opened,” Janning says, noting that nearly half of all Americans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives. Additionally, most people diagnosed with cancer will be financially devastated by the diagnosis. “These cancer patients are already feeling the consequences of cancer every day because the disease is actively killing them. Financial institutions shouldn’t be doing the same thing,” he says.
While making the documentary, Janning met amazing people with moving stories. One was a woman named Elizabeth, who was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer at age 42. When her credit union learned of the financial trauma she had been experiencing because of her terminal diagnosis, the credit union paid off the credit cards and car loan that she had with the organization. That financial relief helped ease her mental and physical strain so that she could hang on long enough to see the birth of her first grandchild before she passed away.
“That act of financial mercy got me thinking, ‘What if this wasn’t just one member and one credit union one time?’” Janning says. “What if this was something that financial institutions did for every member and every customer with terminal cancer?”
Janning began advocating for terminal cancer patients, trying to convince banks, credit unions, credit card companies and mortgage lenders to cancel the debt they hold for their customers and members with terminal cancer.
COVID-19 provided insight into what can happen when a financial crisis meets a health crisis. During the pandemic, the financial industry moved quickly to provide payment relief, payment pauses and other interventions for people who were devastated by the coronavirus.
“Even though that pandemic has slowed, cancer—the original pandemic—hasn’t,” Janning says. “The stuff the financial institutions did for folks during the pandemic should continue for cancer patients because that pandemic never ends.”
More recently, Janning expanded his mission to encourage financial institutions to pause any loan payments for 12 months for any member or customer who is in active treatment for cancer.
Janning gives many keynote presentations around the country where he shares his message with financial institutions. Their reactions are usually that they like the idea but don’t see its feasibility.
“How do you untangle the legal, regulatory and procedural habits that bind financial institutions to saying, ‘This is the way we’ve always done it?’” Janning says. “But if you’re putting more creativity into defending your regulations and procedures at the expense of the people you say you’re there to serve, then that dissonance has to be called out because it’s costing people their financial, economic and physical livelihood.”
Financial institutions are not known for, nor should they be known for, engaging in risky flights of fancy.
“I can watch CFOs age a decade in front of me when I suggest they pause loan payments or cancel debt for people with terminal cancer,” Janning says. “But I say, let’s dive into the numbers instead of reflexively recoiling from something that threatens your status quo.”
Janning is currently in talks with a financial institution based in a southern state to pilot this concept of cancelling debt for their customers with terminal cancer to determine the financial and procedural cost of doing so.
“I’m trying to show that if one organization does it, everyone else will follow,” Janning says, who likens the process to a middle school dance.
“Everyone’s hanging around the dance floor, but no one wants to go out and break the ice,” he says. “I’m trying to pull the first institution to the middle of the dance floor to show this is something they can afford to do.”
The CEO Janning is working with lost both her husband and her daughter to brain cancer, so she’s seen the disease’s devastation up close. Others have a harder time getting on board.
People often ask Janning, “Why just cancer? Why can’t you push to financially help people with other diseases?” The answer is simple, says. “Cancer is arguably the most expensive chronic disease to treat in this country. Just by sheer tonnage, the overall cost to treat cancer exceeds the cost to treat heart disease, stroke, diabetes, epilepsy and arthritis combined.”
“When your house is on fire, you’re not going to wonder if someone should come help you. You send the fire department to extinguish the fire,” Janning says. “A cancer diagnosis is a house fire. We need to have as many people as possible to help put this fire out.”
“Imagine the look on a cancer patient’s face who is going through the worst season of their life when they are told their debts are forgiven—don’t worry about paying us back for a year.” Janning says. “Those words are life changing.”
Lisa, a 55-year-old woman battling terminal ovarian cancer, had her $14,000 auto loan forgiven six weeks before she passed away because of Janning’s lobbying with her bank.
“I would’ve loved to have been able to tell her that they stepped up and made this sacrifice for her,” Janning says. “I see the pain of people going through this. I see their tears. I know how badly this hurts them. I also know the direct correlation between financial stress and physical and emotional health.”
According to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, cancer patients are more than twice as likely to file for bankruptcy after they’ve been diagnosed. Some cancer patients create a GoFundMe, but most crowdfunding fails as people don’t even get a quarter of what they need to pay their medical bills.
“I think it’s criminal that we live in the richest country in the world, yet we have people shaking a digital cup on a digital street corner to beg people to pay to help them stay alive,” Janning says. “That shouldn’t happen.”
Last fall, RockStar Pizza in Brownsburg held a fundraiser where it donated 30% of a day’s profits to Matt and Lindsey, local residents of Brownsburg. Matt had been diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma.
“If a local pizza place is more generous than a financial institution, then we’ve got some real work to do in our country,” Janning says, who notes that 60% of cancer patients must return to work following a cancer diagnosis. They can’t go on disability because of the financial need that cancer causes.
Janning has a small group of organizations who are willing to pilot this to see its potential, but efforts are slow.
“To be fair, I have lots of organizations who have said they’re interested, but there are legal and regulatory hurdles for them to overcome. I get that, but this is a matter of will,” Janning says.
“It’s also a matter of courage to ask, ‘Who are we willing to fight for more?’ I’m trying to advocate inside the industry that holds the keys to transform people’s lives.”
If you would like to support Janning in his mission, you can visit andyjanning.com.