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Andy Edwards, Global Head of International Healthcare, AXA - Global Healthcare

The challenges of living abroad with cancer

PUBLISHED: 27 August 2018 | LAST UPDATED: 6 February 2020

Andy Edward, AXA - Global Healthcare

Written by Andy Edwards

Global Head of International Healthcare, AXA - Global Healthcare.

Receiving a cancer diagnosis is always daunting, but when that diagnosis is delivered in a foreign country, it can be particularly frightening and potentially, quite a lonely experience. Without warning, someone with a new cancer diagnosis may have to navigate an unfamiliar healthcare system, arrange treatment – sometimes in a foreign language – and in certain countries, find a way of funding their treatment themselves.

At AXA – Global Healthcare, cancer treatment makes up almost a fifth of our claims spend, and last year we supported more than 3,000 customers with their treatment. Our experience shows that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to tackling cancer, and that each patient will face their own set of specific circumstances.

The patients that we help, however, do sometimes share common challenges. For anyone planning a move abroad, I recommend considering the following factors, so that you feel reassured you can access any medical treatment you might need whilst overseas:

Is the right medical expertise available locally?

For expats leaving a country with a good standard of state healthcare, it could be easy to take for granted all of the medical facilities that were readily available. However, the importance of specialist equipment, treatment and medical expertise becomes painfully apparent when you suddenly find that you can’t access them easily in your time of need. 

With large countries like China, for example, expats living in more remote locations could be several hundred kilometres away from their nearest hospital or clinic. Likewise, those diagnosed with cancer while living in the Channel Islands often have to travel to the UK mainland in order to receive treatment, because there is no access to radiotherapy on the islands. 

I would always recommend researching the local healthcare system before relocating; whether that’s simply pinning down your nearest clinic or more extensive fact-finding on what facilities are nearby. That way, you won’t be taken by surprise if you need to travel for medical attention.

Can I overcome the language barriers?

Learning the local language is an important part of preparing for a move overseas and many expats will learn the basics, giving them enough of a foothold to have conversations with the bank, at the supermarket or in a restaurant. Very few, unless they’re relocating with a pre-existing condition, will learn how to hold a conversation with a local doctor about medical treatment. 

Trying to explain symptoms, make sense of treatment options and process complex paperwork can be daunting enough in your native language. Having to do so in a foreign tongue can add an entirely new layer of stress to the process.

In big cities and popular expat destinations, you’re likely to find international hospitals, which may be able to provide doctors who can speak your language or even a translator. When such facilities aren’t available, patients with international health insurance may be able to contact their provider for translation support. For instance, we have a network of hospitals in which we can settle our members’ bills directly, so they don’t have to worry about arranging payment and deciphering hospital paperwork themselves in an unfamiliar language. This can be a huge source of relief at an already stressful time.

Can I cover the cost?

Healthcare systems and treatment costs vary significantly around the world. In many countries, treatment, medication and even doctor’s appointments need to be paid for upfront. And when we’re talking about cancer treatment, these costs can be significant.

Expats who relocate in good health may not have considered how they’d cover the cost of treating an unexpected illness, and as a result, coping financially can be one of the largest sources of stress. In South Korea, for example, most medical practitioners and hospitals don’t accept the concept of an insurer settling the bill directly on behalf of the member1, so expats could quickly find themselves burdened with several months’ worth of steep medical bills.

Many expats will set aside money for emergencies, but none will move abroad with any desire to spend their entire nest egg on medical bills. Make sure you’ve considered the cost of seeking medical attention before relocating to a new country, and think about taking out an insurance policy. Many offer extensive cover for conditions like cancer and can offer protection from unexpected costs.

How will we manage if my child gets ill?

We often assume that adults are the most likely to develop cancer, but there are, sadly, exceptions to the rule. For a child to be diagnosed and treated for a serious illness can be an upsetting experience for the whole family. However, to receive such a diagnosis abroad, while adapting to a new environment and culture, can put even more strain on the situation. 

At such a difficult time, parents need all the support they can get, to be strong for their child and help them through what is bound to be a frightening experience. Whether that’s flexibility at work, understanding from school or a strong network of friends and family, that support could mean the difference between staying abroad or returning home.

All of our members who are diagnosed with cancer receive a dedicated case manager to support them throughout their treatment, and we find that this single point of contact can be a great help to families in situations like this. It means they’ve got one less thing to worry about and they can spend extra time with their child, rather than chasing hospitals, sorting out paperwork and finding information to support their claims.  

How can you prepare for these challenges?

There are so many things to prepare when you’re moving overseas and unless someone has a pre-existing condition, healthcare is rarely a consideration. However, I would advise anyone who is relocating abroad – whether they be in the “nice idea one day” stage or are just weeks away from moving day – to ensure that they have considered what would happen if they were to become ill while overseas. Even if you’ve had no prior reason to expect an illness, research the local healthcare system, understand what support and treatment is locally available, and make sure you’re comfortable with your options.

We could all use a little help from time to time. So whether you’re moving to a bustling city or somewhere more remote, consider an international private medical insurance plan for extra reassurance.