According to the Department of Work and Pensions’ preliminary estimates for 2013/14 (bear with me here), around £1.1bn was paid out to fraudulent benefits claims, representing around 0.7% of the total benefits bill. Clearly there are a lot of people persuaded towards dishonesty by the promise of ‘free money’ in return for false claims that might never be found out.
As a recovering cancer patient, however, I have found that benefits claims can force you to be brutally honest, at least with yourself. After a stem cell transplant, or indeed any kind of treatment, it’s natural to focus on building your strength, regaining any lost independence and getting back to as normal a life as possible. At every point, you’re encouraged to focus on the positive and to enjoy any sign of recovery, however small. Optimism is the name of the game.
Yet fill in a claim form to show you are eligible for a benefit such as Personal Independence Payment, and you have to completely reverse that way of thinking. Positivity and optimism may get you through every day, helping you to downplay negative events and boosting your hopes, but they’re your biggest enemy when claiming benefits. After all, why would the government agree to dish out taxpayers’ money to you if you’re claiming to be far stronger than you ever expected? That’s not to say you should lie about what state you are in – quite the opposite: you need to be honest about the bad moments and difficult days that perhaps you had been trying to forget.
As you might imagine, I’m far better at the rose-tinted view of everything going perfectly than I am at focusing on the more difficult moments. At a recent appointment, I asked the doctor whether things weren’t, in a strange way, going too well… The nurse was quick to remind me that actually I’ve had a long bout of ‘flu (which may still be the cause of my nose getting blocked a bit), as well as the spiked temperature, inflated head and rash on my body that required readmission, a skin biopsy and courses of antibiotics and steroids.
Naturally I’d underplayed their significance and focused on the good days, but confronted with the need to be honest about my situation when claiming benefits, I’m forced to consider the tougher times, too. The system requires that you not only remember the issues that required hospital treatment, but also recall in detail the days when you’ve not had the energy to do anything, the times you’ve struggled to concentrate and the relatively short walks that have worn you out, for example. For many patients, reliving the tough moments will be a painful step on the path to claim the benefits they deserve – particularly if they’re putting all their effort into focusing on the positive signs.
It’s not the only difficult contrast that cancer has thrown up. Now I’m into the third month since my bone marrow transplant, the doctors have started to reduce my dose of ciclosporin, with the aim of weaning me off it as soon as possible. This will give my new immune system more strength, but also increase the chance of GvHD (graft-versus-host disease) and therefore also the possibility of GvL (graft-versus-leukaemia). On the one hand, some GvHD is good because of the extra line of defence provided by GvL against any hint of leukaemia, but on the other hand, GvHD can be a nasty and dangerous side-effect – after all, it means the new immune system is attacking your own body.
It is, of course, very common for treatment to bring not only benefits but also potential damage; usually this in turn is countered by some other medicine, which brings its own side-effects – and so it goes on. Medicine is seldom as simple as providing a golden pill to resolve all ills.
It’s exciting, though, to be two-thirds of the way through my most vulnerable period, as well as to be reducing the ciclosporin dose already. Everything feels positive – but I’ll try not to forget the tougher moments when I send off my benefit claims form…