Here’s what it’s like to have cancer at 40 without health insurance


SPONSORED POST DECLARATION: This content was paid for by Raffles Health Insurance, a private healthcare insurer. Click here to find out more.


The first time I learnt that I had a tumor growing in my lungs was in 2018.

I had been struggling with a persistent bout of pneumonia; the disease had refused to go away for months; the doctor decided that I needed a scan. 

When the results came out, the doctor informed me that I had a lung carcinoid tumor.

The good news? This was a relatively slow growing type of cancer, which meant that my life wasn’t immediately at risk. I could still seek treatment options. 

The bad news though, was that I had actually put off buying insurance for the past decade – that’s right, I survived most of my twenties and thirties without even an Integrated Shield Plan

Lest you think otherwise, for the longest time, I actually knew insurance was important. But as a working adult who had to support my parents and juggle my volunteer projects, life was busy enough. 

My dad passed away from cancer 4 years before 2018. I was well aware of the costs associated with the disease, but I hardly had the time nor energy to plan my finances or future. Coupled with the fact that insurance was such an unapproachable and complex topic, I put it off, thinking I could sort it out later. 

Today, I’m sharing my experience so you can avoid my unfortunate plight.

MediShield Life is not enough

It’s a common assumption that we are sufficiently covered by the government’s basic health insurance plan, MediShield Life. Perhaps that applies to smaller medical procedures, but in my experience, definitely not something as big as cancer. 

I found out the hard way the first time when I realised the out-of-pocket costs were very substantial when my Dad got treatment. And then again when I was fighting my own battle. 

Due to things such as claim limits, deductibles and co-pay, MediShield Life alone is barely enough for the public hospital system, and definitely not enough for private hospitals – if the only preferred skilled doctor happens to be based at a private hospital.  

Currently, you can only use MediShield Life to pay for 35% of bills (subjected to sub limits) at private hospitals. If i had done my surgery at a private hospital, it would have cost about $45,000.

This was an actual quote from 2 doctors at a private hospital, before adding other substantial costs of several check-ups, procedures and follow-ups pre-hospitalization and post-hospitalization.

In total, my treatment (after doing everything at the cheapest Ward Class C) cost a total of $22,448.16, and I could only claim for $7,652 of it. The remaining $14,796, I had to pay out of pocket, and if I opted to go to a higher ward, these costs might have been way higher.  

The Case for Private healthcare

I’ll be first to say that it’s not fair to say medical staff in private healthcare are better than their counterparts in public institutions. That said, there are some pros of private healthcare.

FYI, public hospitals will give you an earlier slot depending on how fast you’re dying, so any notion of ‘going to public hospitals is putting your life at risk’ should be thrown out the window.

For example, sometimes, the only doctor who can do the particular type of surgery you need happens to be based at a private hospital.

Other times, private hospitals can provide shorter waiting times, eg. do surgery on an earlier date, or do some scans, tests & consultation on the same day.

Of course, Private Healthcare also means fewer subsidies and steeper costs. So there are definitely trade-offs there. 

Do not fully depend on your employer for protection  

Many people I know don’t buy hospitalisation plans because they get some coverage from their employer under a group insurance policy.  This seems like a good way to save money, but you’re not considering two things: 

One: Insurance limits. This is just a small staff benefit, which may give small coverage for some ailments. It’s not your employer’s role to give you comprehensive medical coverage.

Two: Your insurance policy lapses after you leave your company. And yes, generally getting cancer is one of the ways you might leave your current company.  

‘Pre-existing conditions’ is a big deal for insurers

This is one more reason to not depend on your employer’s insurance plan; a big enough one to command its own paragraph. 

TWS: Insurers literally hire people called ‘actuaries’ to calculate those risks, and ‘underwriters’ who choose to take on risks, so it’s important you understand covering anyone is literally a calculated move.

Since getting diagnosed with a carcinoid tumor, I’ve tried to buy Integrated Shield hospitalisation plans from the insurers in Singapore. I’ve been straight up rejected indefinitely. Only Raffles Shield is open to re-assessing my application 5 years post-treatment, but whether they are able to offer me any Shield plan would depend on my overall health condition by that time.

Even if I’m offered a plan, it will exclude coverage for all my pre-existing medical conditions by that time – this if course not just, ANY commercial insurer out there will not cover pre-existing conditions. 

So now I still don’t have any Integrated Shield Plan at all.

If you ask me, that’s the single biggest reason to buy your Integrated Shield Plan early. 

Life without Integrated Shield Plan is scary

Now, after reading my story so far, you might be thinking: “Oh, but your cancer is not serious and doesn’t threaten your life – why are you so worried?” 

Well, the simple answer is this. Cancer patients don’t only get cancer. 

Just like any normal person, there are a myriad of other reasons why anyone may end up in hospital. A car accident, diabetes, stroke, organ failure, whatever – these will not always be adequately covered by MediShield Life.

Because of this, I’ll never know whether i’ll have huge hospital bills to pay anytime in the future.

If my health goes, my bank account will suffer as well.

For that reason I’ve had to quit my job after the medical leave ended; till today, I haven’t fully recovered. In many ways, I still feel like my battle isn’t over, and won’t be for a long time.

TWS:  It is often said that learning from experience is the best way to gain new knowledge. We humbly disagree.

Because if the only way you learn through experience, then some lessons in life might come too late. 

Stay woke, Salaryman.

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Raffles Health Insurance is part of Raffles Medical Group; a private healthcare provider. That said, we need to also say that private healthcare coverage does have its perks, but isn’t always the cheapest insurance option. Always buy insurance within your means.

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