What I Learned About Financial Health From Surviving Cancer

By Allison Kvikstad

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. After surviving cancer back in 2016 and 2017, I’m a huge proponent of annual medical check-ups from experts (aka doctors and specialists) who are specifically trained to review my health relative to my personal history.

A photo of a woman talking to her financial professional

If you aren’t a medical professional, learning about an illness can be overwhelming. At the onset of a diagnosis for yourself or a loved one, you might spend hours on WebMD — daily. You can get to the point where you start to think you’re a health expert … but deep down, you know that’s not really true. Medical terms can be so overwhelming that it’s similar to learning a foreign language. And you simply don’t know what you don’t know. So at some point, you have to put your trust in the actual experts: doctors and nurses who have the experience and training to help you navigate through an illness.

Throughout my 25-year career in the financial services industry, I’ve counseled thousands of people on topics around financial literacy, the economy, and the markets. And I see a lot of parallels between what I’ve learned about physical health and financial health.

You really need the professionals.

It’s imperative to have a professional provide you with a check-up of your investments and your overall financial situation. It perplexes me that someone would have a friend, neighbor, parent, boss — someone they trust, but who isn’t an experienced financial professional — give them advice on their financial future, livelihood, and the best way to reach their goals. Ask a professional financial advisor — one who works with a federally registered investment adviser — for a holistic review of your financial situation.

And you need a team of specialists.

One of my best friends is a heart surgeon; while I love her and have no doubt of her capabilities, I don’t ask her to give me my annual eye exam. This goes hand in hand with receiving financial advice. What kind of specialists are on your team depends on your own situation; here’s a rundown of who you might want to talk to and what kinds of questions you should be asking them each year.

Ask for referrals to find them.

Not sure how to select a professional to work with? Ask for referrals. In the medical field, you can ask your general practitioner for referrals to specialists. I love to ask, “Who would you work with if you were in my situation?” In the financial services industry, you can ask CPAs and estate attorneys for referrals to a financial advisor. Ask specifically: Who do they like to work with and why?

Get a second opinion.

Before you choose a professional to work with on your financial plan, realize that it’s perfectly acceptable to receive a second or even third opinion. Again: Make sure these opinions are from professionals in the field.

Don’t stick with a provider you don’t like.

If you aren’t working with someone you like, then seek another provider. Doctors should have a good “bedside manner.” I met with four surgeons, two oncologists, and one radiologist before selecting my team. I was fortunate to have good health care, and I was able to choose doctors who had the skill set for my diagnosis and who I actually felt respected me and would listen. It made such a difference. You can (and should) insist on the same connection with your financial professionals — here’s some advice to help you decide whether you’re with the right team now. Realize you are in the driver's seat and you have choices.

Advocate for yourself.

No one knows your situation better than you. Speak up. If you don’t understand something, ask the professional to explain it again and again if necessary until you do understand. You don’t need to get your own degree, but you do need to know what’s happening and why, and how might it impact your life. In my opinion, the investors who take the time to understand the basics of investing and learn why they own specific investments tend to panic less during market corrections. Also, understand that at some point, you may need to trust the professionals.

Try not to compare your situation with others.

Everyone’s situation is unique to their own set of circumstances. What works for your friend, parent, or neighbor may not work the same for you for a variety of reasons. I have learned that this is very relevant to your health. During my treatment, I spent hours reading social media posts from women about their recovery stories. It became my ongoing quest to understand why my progress might differ from others, like a woman across the country undergoing the same exact treatment. Finally, one of my doctors quoted Theodore Roosevelt to me: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” She told me to stop comparing my situation with others, because everyone has their own set of health circumstances unique to them.

The same is true with investing. Investors are often comparing their returns to specific benchmarks, or to historical returns, or to other investors (who of course will more frequently share the wins and not the losses). Don’t let this become a strategy of always trying to achieve the unattainable. Each investor has their own set of financial goals, their own personal values, and a historical perspective around finances that is unique to them.

Make your own health and your wealth a priority.

I love the directions from flight attendants: Place the oxygen mask on yourself before helping your children. I’m a single mom juggling my career and parenthood. My tumor was diagnosed after a standard mammogram. I had unfortunately postponed this annual appointment for six months because I was too busy. I learned that I had cancer that had spread to some lymph nodes, increasing the severity of my diagnosis. I still kick myself for postponing that visit. Take your health seriously. In the medical field, studies show that health providers who take time to care for their own health provide better care to their patients.

This lesson is also so true for your wealth and overall financial situation. During my health crisis, I focused on making sure that my trust, will, power of attorney, and health care directives were all completed. It is also important to think about how your financial priorities may change as you age. I’m now healthy (yeah!) and in the sandwich phase. I’m balancing my own retirement plan (20-plus years out) while also helping my college-aged son and my aging parents. I know I need to care for my own financial well-being in order to remain on track to reach my own financial goals.

Create a thoughtful plan for the unexpected.

I thought nothing could be more unexpected than a diagnosis of breast cancer when I thought I was perfectly healthy. I’ve worked with private wealth clients throughout the last three recessions, and I do see a pattern. From what I have experienced, the investors who had a thoughtful financial plan in place and worked with a professional navigated those downturns with less anxiety. The thoughtful plan entails understanding three things: What is the money for? When will it be needed? Why do you own what you own? I found that clients with a plan like this in place tended to avoid making emotional, impulsive, and often costly investment decisions.

A thoughtful investment plan should tie into your asset allocation strategy and reflect your time horizon, near and long-term financial goals, risk tolerance, income needs, tax situation, and hopefully your values (that’s really important). And as part of the process, you should understand the benefits of sticking to your investment plan during market corrections.

Try not to get overwhelmed by the process.

Many people lack the time or skill set to devote to managing their finances. They are superstars in other aspects of their lives but often find the money management task challenging or tedious. This is even more true when faced with a life transition. Becoming recently divorced or widowed, or receiving an inheritance or liquidity event, or planning for an upcoming retirement often increase the need for one to devote time and energy to the management of their finances.

Take the process in steps:

  1. Check-up

  2. Diagnosis

  3. Selecting a team

  4. Creating a plan

  5. Executing on your plan

  6. Regularly assessing how your plan is moving toward your target

Take action.

Once you have received advice and done a check-up (or two or three), act on the advice. Make the decisions you’ve agreed on with your professionals. It can be so easy to say, “I’ll start it tomorrow. But realize that inaction itself is a choice — the choice to stay stagnant. And just like with health advice, the cost of not taking action can be really, really high.

One last thing: I’m absolutely not an expert in any segment of the health care industry. My situation is unique, and my observations are really to make the point that financial wellness is just as important as physical wellness. I am incredibly thankful to my team of health care professionals who helped me during a major life crisis — and I’m just as thankful to be part of a team of financial professionals helping other people every day.

Make sure you know the facts about breast cancer — and schedule a screening if you need to.

And you can click here to contact an Ellevest financial advisor in your area to start talking about your financial health.


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Allison Kvikstad

Allison Kvikstad has over 25 years of experience in the financial services industry. She’s a financial advisor on Ellevest’s Private Wealth Management team, working with clients to help them develop personalized long-term investment plans that align with their goals and values.