Goodbishop via shutterstock
Cancer patients receiving chemotherapy (Goodbishop via shutterstock)

Before nurses at the Norma Pfriem Breast Center in Trumbull began collecting donations of food and asking people to donate meals through local restaurants, as the coronavirus pandemic got underway, some cancer patients went weeks without a hot meal, staff said.

The number of cancer patients who need help with food, utilities and transportation to treatment has also increased throughout the state according to oncology centers for Starling Physicians and the network of cancer centers associated with Hartford HealthCare.

“Life is always complex for cancer patients,” said Ellen Dornelas, a psychologist with the Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute. “But due to the pandemic, I think it’s become much more complex for cancer patients. There are people who have lost jobs or run out of unemployment or people who are struggling with getting rides.”

Some of the financial strain is due to the increased healthcare costs that come with a cancer diagnosis, social workers said. For others, furloughs due to the pandemic or concerns that a spouse will bring the virus home to an immunocompromised family member have led to a loss of income.

“While I can’t say for certain the number of applications I’m completing has increased, I can say the severity of the situations have,” said Erin Stocking, social worker for Hartford HealthCare’s network of cancer care centers.

Hartford HealthCare is expanding efforts to help people connect with family and friends to organize food delivery and transportation through an online service provided by the Cancer Support Community, an international nonprofit that provides personalized support to cancer patients. The same organization will help patients find free Air B&B lodging if they have to travel for treatment, Dornelas said.

Many cancer patients treated at the Hospital of Central Connecticut have lost their entire income during the pandemic, Stocking said. “Not only does this impact their ability to maintain the household needs, but in some cases, also impacts their insurance coverage,” Stocking said. “I anticipate with the loss of the extra $600 unemployment benefit many were receiving, the need is going to continue to increase.”

The Starling Physicians Department of Oncology and Hematology in Wethersfield also has been seeing an increase in the number of cancer patients who need help with food, transportation and utilities, according to social worker Christie Fiori.

“The need for transportation has increased because many of the services have been suspended,” Fiori said. To help patients get to medical appointments, Fiori has been handing out gift cards to Uber and Lyft that were donated by the Linda Clemons Foundation, which also donated Stop and Shop gift cards.

Fiori has been helping three to four patients a week with food and other resources as the pandemic has progressed. “Some weeks it’s absolutely crazy,” Fiori said. “They already weren’t necessarily feeling well enough to go to the grocery store and all meal delivery services have stopped.”

She’s been handing out donated grocery-store gift cards so people can get groceries delivered without having to go to the store. Delivery service is more expensive than shopping in person, she said, but people undergoing treatment are concerned about being out in public.

“People aren’t comfortable going to the grocery store if their immune system is compromised,” Fiori said.

Patricia Ponioros and Allison Vallance, both nurses at the Norma Pfriem Breast Center at the Yale New Haven Health Smilow Cancer Hospital Care Center, began seeking food donations from neighbors and friends after seeing an uptick in mid-April in cancer patients who needed help.

At one point, Vallance said they were handing out bags of groceries that included fresh milk, eggs and juice to 20 patients a week. The effort expanded to include a drive to get donors to pay for meals at local restaurants that were distributed to local cancer patients.

“I had deliveries coming from Massachusetts and all over the state,” Vallance said.

The Trumbull effort has been scaled back of late, but they are still collecting gift cards in case the pandemic ramps up again. “Patients know to get in touch with us if they need anything,” Vallance said. “We have patient navigators who are there to help emotionally and financially. Our goal is to treat the whole patient, not just the cancer.”

Donations of gift cards to Stop & Shop, Uber, Lyft or Visa can be mailed to the Hematology and Oncology Department at Starling Physicians, attn.: Christie Fiori, 1260 Silas Deane Highway, Wethersfield, CT, 06109. Donations are also welcome at the Hartford HealthCare oncology patient assistance fund or the Norma Pfriem Breast Center COVID Helping Hands Fund by calling Kate or Mari-Jo at 203-255-5300.