Cancer Diagnosis Alters Life & Finances

At times, it can feel like serendipity has placed certain people in your path. In the midst of the New Day office build out, Gina came across Dale Wood, head of the office furniture division of Detroit Pencil Company, and the two “swapped horror stories,” as Dale said.

He is essentially the poster child for the critical need for all of New Day’s services – from financial assistance and counseling services, to financial navigation.  Dale did not have access to any of these services throughout his surgeries and treatment for a bone tumor in his brain 15 years ago.  The resulting fallout included years of struggle that would eventually end in bankruptcy and depression, before he turned it all around.

In 2003, Dale was a hardworking, successful salesperson, bringing in $125,000 per year for his wife and two young children. When he was diagnosed with a brain tumor that his initial neurosurgeon couldn’t touch, his sales perseverance kicked in. He tracked down a surgeon who agreed to do the surgery, yet told him to get his affairs in order before arriving for the procedure.

After 15 hours and 125 staples in his head from a bone tumor larger than a golf ball, they had removed just half of the mass. Later, a second surgery was performed to remove the rest. He spent one-and-a-half years on disability, dropping the family’s income to $30k per year. At the time, proton beam therapy was experimental and being done in Boston. The surgeon gave Dale a 70% chance the tumor would return without it, and a 30% chance with it.  If it returned, it would be inoperable due to the damage done. He packed his bags and moved to Boston for two months of treatment.

Coincidentally, proton beam therapy is the treatment which Gina’s son, Sam, recently underwent for his brain tumor. No longer an experimental procedure today, it has vastly improved treatment outcomes since Dale’s experience. “Mine looked like a backyard building project with 2 x 4s and tin foil,” laughs Dale. “It looked like a kid’s laser gun sticking out of the end.”

During his time in Boston, the hospital would invoice Dale every week for $50k to $70k, sending his stress levels increasingly higher.  “I was a straight commission sales rep who was not selling and trying to support my family while living in Boston. After fighting for months, my insurance finally paid 90% of the bill – but it was a million dollar bill, so I still owed almost $100k to Mass General.  (Afterward) Dr. Guthikonda did my second surgery pro bono, waiving the $75k fee because insurance wouldn’t pay for it.”

The Financial Fallout

“Mass General suggested I file bankruptcy the day I left,” Dale explains.  “Being the stupid stand-up guy I was, I didn’t file until four years later when I faced losing my house and both cars. I sold our motorhome, a classic car, and any jewelry we didn’t wear daily. My wife went back to work full-time.”

Dale points to the lack of financial advice available at the time for his downfall. “I needed someone to talk to about putting it in perspective and not get overwhelmed by the bills that were coming in,” he explains.  “How to prioritize, get everybody in line, and what you have to pay and what you don’t until you get back on your feet.  At the time, you either paid or filed bankruptcy; Google wasn’t around and there was no way to reach out, so who do you call?”

For the next four years, he worked 90 hours a week at two jobs trying to pay the bills. However, being a sales rep out of the market, he had lost nearly 60 % of his customers and now averaged $50k per year. He still owed the DMC $125k when the market went into the first of two recessions and he lost almost all of his investment savings.

“The financial burden nearly tore my family apart,” said Dale. “I was working constantly just to make enough to pay the bills, and dealing with the stress of having the bank repossess my car and my wife calling to tell me we have a foreclosure notice on our home. Basically, all we worked for over 20 years is suddenly gone and we have nothing to show for it.

“It’s tough on the family. You’re trying not to let your kids know you’re buying clothes at the thrift store, not Somerset. My kids are stronger now and they have our work ethic. They know what we did to get through it, but at the time they didn’t understand what we went through.”

While the Salvation Army helped with wife and kids while he was gone, and his parents pitched in financially what they could, there was no outside financial help available to the family. It’s been 15 years and Dale has always held a second job since then.

The Emotional Toll

Dale was patient number 39 with his tumor and agreed to undergo the experimental proton therapy. There was no record of anyone else surviving that he could talk to about a shared experience, and no counseling services to deal with the threat of the tumor returning. He spoke to his pastor for spiritual support, but found that the advice mainly aimed to prepare him for death.

Dale explains that it would have been different to have the support of someone who had gone through his experience, who could relate to his emotional stress and financial toxicity. Instead, he involved himself in counseling others in his situation, helping a customer who was told her tumor was inoperable and connecting her to his doctor. He is proud that she is now a motivational speaker.

Two years ago, he had a scare when he thought the tumor was back. “I was dealing with planning my own funeral without letting my family know,” he explained. That experience sent him into depression, for which he now sees a psychiatrist to help him deal with the constant threat of the tumor returning.

A New Beginning

Today things are looking up for Dale, yet it has taken 15 years to get here. He feels that if New Day had been available to him in 2003, he would have certainly benefitted from not only the financial navigation and assistance, but the emotional support as well.  He was recently cleared by his surgeon and assured that there is no sign of recurrence with his tumor for the next seven years.

Additionally, his career is taking off. Dale joined Detroit Pencil Co. eight years ago to start the office furniture division, which has grown to a $3 million part of the company, due in no small part to his work ethic. And he’s donating an adjustable desk to New Day for Gina. “She’s got a bad back and we’ll get her set up,” he adds with a smile.

To contact Dale regarding office furniture, email him at Dale Wood dwood@detroitpencilcompany.com.