My sister-in-law has cancer.

Last week, a biopsy revealed that Stephanie has a cancerous lump on her thyroid. She’ll likely have her thyroid removed, meaning she’ll need to take medication for the rest of her life. (She’s 37 years old.) She’ll also probably need a handful of radioactive iodine chemotherapy treatments.

Prognosis positive
Jeff and Stephanie have both settled down a bit after the initial scare. They’ve heard from many sources, including Steph’s grandmother, that this form (and location) of cancer is easy to eliminate, and has a low chance of spreading or recurring. Steph’s grandmother had her thyroid removed years ago (due to a growth on it), and she is now 77 years old.

Still, this is cancer, which no member of my family takes lightly. My father died from cancer ten days before his fiftieth birthday. Last summer, cancer killed a cousin at age 47. Other family members have died from the disease as well.

A lucky mistake
A situation like this has enormous personal finance implications. Steph’s case is especially interesting because it demonstrates that sometimes the “right choice” isn’t.

Before the birth of their daughter in February 2006, Stephanie obtained a supplemental hospital/short-term disability insurance policy because she knew she would need a C-section. After Emily was born, Steph tried to cancel the policy, but the agent talked her into switching to a cheaper cancer/accident policy instead.

Inspired in part by Get Rich Slowly, Jeff and Steph have been taking control of their personal finances. This past May, when it came time for her office to renew policies, Stephanie asked to have her cancer/accident policy canceled because she wanted to save the $70 recurring monthly expense.

After the cancer diagnosis came through, Jeff and Stephanie were kicking themselves for having canceled the policy — it would have offset some of their upcoming costs. Then Steph remembered that both of her June paycheck stubs still had the deductions listed. She called her agent to see if her policies were still in force. Sure enough, the official cancel date was July 1st, so the agent was able to revoke the cancelation.

“I don’t know if it will pay out enough to compensate for all the premiums we’ve paid in the last two years,” Jeff writes, “but at this point I don’t care. If it helps with the medical bills that are bound to accrue, that’s all that matters.”

A calculated risk
Stephanie’s situation highlights just how difficult it can be to know how much (and what kind of) insurance to carry. It seemed unlikely that she’d need the cancer policy, so she canceled it. From a Big Picture perspective, this was probably the right decision. But in her individual circumstance, it turned out to be the wrong move.

Last fall, in his brief introduction to insurance, Aaron Pinkston wrote that “insurance is the cheapest and most immediate way for a person to displace risks that are too great to assume individually”. That is, insurance allows groups to pool their money to offset unexpected large individual costs.

But how can you decide how much insurance you need? And what types? Later today, I’ll share a guest post about making informed insurance choices.

Meanwhile, friends and family are ready to help Jeff and Stephanie through this crisis. And although they have bigger things to worry about, it gives them a degree of comfort to know they have a little insurance to help with the financial challenges that loom ahead.