When Gregory Jacobson was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma in 2015 at age 17, his parents figured the family could weather the costs of his pediatric cancer treatment thanks to their health insurance. What they quickly realized was that cancer comes with all sorts of costs, financial and otherwise.
“Before it happens to you, nobody has experience with cancer,” says Susan Jacobson, Greg’s mother. “People don’t come in understanding the expenses that go with having a child in treatment, especially because treatments tend to last longer for children. We had tremendous costs outside of what our insurance was covering. It was an eye-opener for my husband and me.”
To support the Jacobson family during Greg’s initial diagnosis and treatment, and then, after a brief remission, through his cancer recurrence in 2017, their neighbors and friends raised funds through a community golf tournament. Now, the Jacobsons, along with supporters known as the “Bubba Strong Team,” continue to pay that generosity forward for families going through pediatric cancer treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital. They established the Bubba Strong Charitable Fund — a reference to Greg’s nickname from his Scottish great-grandparents — and continue to host golf tournaments that raise funds to provide gift cards that cover those unforeseen expenses along with mortgage and rent relief for patients and their families.
“The families who receive this support are so moved to receive this financial aid and to know that someone is thinking about them and their well-being,” says Elyse Levin-Russman, MSW, LICSW, OSW-C, Clinical Social Worker for Pediatric Hematology/Oncology. “They’re overwhelmed with gratitude to know that some stranger out there is interested in helping them.”
A Long, Costly Road
The Jacobsons — Greg, his parents, his older brother and twin sister — live in Norfolk, Mass., which means they know firsthand the costs that came with traveling to receive care. In his first round of treatment, Greg endured 42 weeks of chemotherapy, eight weeks of radiation and an additional six months of chemo via a daily pill. His treatment after the recurrence was even more aggressive; he underwent major surgery to remove a tumor in his jaw. The chemotherapy had also taken a toll on his appetite, and Greg lost a total of 80 pounds. The consecutive days away from home and Greg’s nausea meant the family often had to spend nights in hotels, along with paying for parking and food.
“I remember having those large bills when we stayed over,” Sue says. “The clinic does the best they can, but they weren’t able to give that kind of money out to everybody every day. I realized we could really help other families with those expenses.”
Walking the Path Together
“With the gift cards, a little bit goes a long way,” Elyse adds. “Families might need to buy a car seat because they had to borrow one, or to get a winter coat because they had to stop working to take care of their child and can’t afford to buy the things they used to. This allows my team and me to have the discretion to say, ‘Let us give you this. We have a donor, and they want to help you. We understand, as they do because they walked in that path, that there are unanticipated financial burdens related to having a child with cancer.’”
Other expenses covered include childcare for siblings, clothing and gifts during the holidays. The Jacobson’s also focused on ride shares and other transportation during the COVID-19 pandemic so families with immunosuppressed children had options besides public transit. In total, the Bubba Strong Charitable Fund annually provides about $4,000 in gift cards; $2,000 for Bubba’s Bus, which provides transportation options to the hospital; and with roughly $10,000 to cover rent and mortgage payments for families.
A Lifeline for Patients
Recently, the Jacobson’s launched a scholarship fund in honor of Mary Jo Gonzales, Greg’s beloved Mass General nurse practitioner who died in March 2023. Sue recounted that when Greg had a surgical complication that required a 30-day hospital stay, Mary Jo checked on him and his family daily, even if her shift was over. The scholarship, in addition to support the family offers to seniors at King Philip High School, will benefit Mass General patients who were treated there for childhood cancers and are now entering college.
“Mary Jo, Karen and the rest of Greg’s team and the folks at Mass General really became our lifeline,” Sue says. “They were absolutely the best. When Greg became a patient at their pediatric oncology clinic, we were treated with such care, compassion and skill. So, we really wanted to give back to the place where we received that treatment.”
“When people receive the most difficult news out there — that your child has been diagnosed with cancer — we want to take some of the financial worry off their plates,” Sue says. “This way, they can focus just on helping their child get better and getting through a difficult time.”
To learn more about the Bubba Strong Charitable Fund, please contact us.