Almost 40% of cancer patients in Northern Ireland cannot afford to pay their winter fuel bills, a new report claims.
Many are struggling to meet financial commitments such as travel for medical appointments, with three-quarters finding themselves an average £290 worse off every month after being diagnosed with the illness, according to research.
Macmillan Cancer Support has now called on the Stormont executive in Belfast to offer victims an immediate payment of £100 to help fund heating costs. Northern Ireland general manager Heather Monteverde said: "This will be a lifeline for many."
The scale of the plight facing patients in Northern Ireland was revealed in a UK-wide study carried out by the University of Bristol. Many are under serious pressure to pay household bills or buy essentials. The self-employed and those with children are the hardest hit, according to the survey, with almost 40% of patients unable to keep their homes adequately warm in winter because they cannot afford it.
More than one in 10 (11%) missed a fuel payment in the past year, while over half (51%) said their fuel bills increased by £18 a month after diagnosis - more than double the increase experienced by patients in the rest of the UK.
The survey revealed that 16% used an unauthorised overdraft, one in 10 missed a payment on a loan or credit card and 7% were unable to pay their rates at least once in the year. High travel costs meant 67% of patients questioned were paying £76 a month just to get to medical appointments.
Macmillan in Northern Ireland has already developed a network of specialist benefits advice services which helped people with cancer claim more than £20 million in six years. The charity has also given out £3 million in grants to patients struggling to cope. Without that, the situation would have been much worse.
Ms Monteverde said the new research confirmed that cancer came with real costs which must not be ignored and, combined with the current recession and with the as yet unknown impacts of welfare reform, the cost was hitting the most vulnerable hardest. Even though the research found the average cost of cancer is £290 a month, many patients are hit with much higher costs.
Macmillan urged the Executive to develop a long-term plan to tackle fuel poverty as well as offering cancer patients an immediate lifeline by making a commitment to repeat the £100 payment it gave cancer patients in February last year.
Ms Monteverde added: "Fuel poverty is a major problem among cancer patients who often feel the cold much more and the problem is worse for NI patients who often need to rely on costly oil or coal heating. We want the Executive to commit to repeating the £100 fuel payment to help cancer patients pay for their heating. This will be a lifeline for some of those struggling to pay their bills. However, in the long term it is vital that the Executive comes up with a comprehensive strategy to tackle fuel poverty so that no cancer patient has to worry about turning on the heating."