I

was first diagnosed with cancer when I was a senior in college, preparing to get a job and begin paying off my student loans. I was fortunate to have school administrators who advocated for me, and my loans were quickly deferred. But many of the 70,000 young adults diagnosed with cancer each year in the United States aren’t so lucky. They continue to rack up interest as they put their lives on hold to go through lifesaving cancer treatments.

That’s why I urge Congress to pass the Deferment for Active Cancer Treatment Act of 2017 this session. This essential but under-the-radar piece of legislation would allow cancer patients to qualify under existing laws for student loan deferments while they undergo treatment.

Deferment is not new. It is a well-used policy that allows Americans in special circumstances to pause making loan payments — and interest from accruing — on their student loans. Qualifying reasons for deferment include going back to school, joining the armed services, looking for a job, or becoming permanently disabled. Deferment doesn’t mean you avoid making good on your debt. On the contrary, it ensures that you are able to pay off your loan even in the face of financial hardship.

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But cancer doesn’t qualify, so those fighting it are often forced to choose forbearance, or default entirely on their student loans.

When a loan goes into forbearance, a borrower postpones monthly payments but interest continues to accrue, leaving a larger balance than before. Some people choose this option because it at least protects their credit in the long term. If a borrower stops making payments altogether without making arrangements for forbearance or deferment, the loan can go into default. That can severely damage an individual’s credit report, which would likely affect his or her ability to get any future loans. Both forbearance and default can have a profound effect on an individual’s future financial health.

Putting protections such as the Deferment for Active Cancer Treatment Act in place would prevent student loans from turning into financial crises. Allowing individuals to hit “pause” on their student loan payments while they go through treatment means that no additional interest accrues, educational debt stops mounting, and there’s no damaged credit rating — just temporary relief from financial pressures so they can instead focus their energy and resources on fighting cancer.

Critical Mass: The Young Adult Cancer Alliance, the only full-time advocacy organization dedicated to the unique needs of adolescents and young adults affected by cancer, is leading the charge to make this bill law. It has made it easy for individuals to help, with an online letter that they can use to ask their representative to support the bill

In June, I traveled to Washington, D.C., to see this bill introduced by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.). Later that afternoon, she attended the Critical Mass congressional briefing and listened to people’s stories of cancer and college. One young woman shared that she was diagnosed with cancer a few months after finishing law school. She had taken out $100,000 in student loans as an investment into her future. She called her student loan company asking for options and there was only one: forbearance. She was told that cancer treatment did not qualify for deferment. While battling cancer, she watched her student loan balance rise to $160,000 both because of the high interest rate and the fact that she was unable to make payments for a long time. She ended up owing $60,000 more just because she was trying to save her own life. That is unacceptable.

Unfortunately, her story is not uncommon. Many young adult cancer survivors are struggling in profound ways — making impossible choices between paying for food or paying for medications, on the verge of losing their homes, or having their wages garnished due to outstanding bills they cannot pay. These are the stories we hear every single day at The Samfund.

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I created The Samfund in 2003, two years after I finished college, to support young adult cancer survivors as they recover from the financial impact of cancer treatment. We award grants twice a year to young adult cancer survivors for everyday living expenses, medical costs, family building, and even for student loan payments. But it is not enough. Our grants, like all similar programs, are a giant Band-Aid on a larger, systemic problem.

Getting Congress to pass this act into law requires no money from the federal budget and does not involve loan forgiveness. It’s simply says that cancer treatment should be a valid reason for student loan deferment under existing standards so those undergoing treatment can focus on what’s most important.

I’m proof that deferment can mean the difference between filing for bankruptcy and being a contributing member of society. When I finished treatment and began working, I consolidated my loans and began making monthly payments. More than 15 years after graduating, I finally sent in my last student loan payment.

If passed, the Deferment for Active Cancer Treatment Act could help improve the 11.3 percent national delinquency rate on student loans. Even more important, it would take some of the stress off individuals with student loans as they undergo cancer treatment — and you can’t put a dollar value on that.

Samantha Watson is the founder and CEO of The Samfund.

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  • In the UK, where tuition fees remain comparatively new, student loans are only payable when the borrower’s income is over a certain level. In that sense it is effectively a tax on the returns to higher education, and if there are no returns (say, because of illness that keeps someone out of the workforce), then there’s nothing to pay. The UK system has been criticised in many ways from different perspectives, but this article reveals at least how much more progressive it is than the US system.

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