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Her student loan bill was $1,500 a month — then she got cancer

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When Cynthia Thomas Reher was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2012, she wished she could take some time off from work.

Yet she had a $1,500 monthly student loan bill to keep up with.

Throughout her treatments, which included the removal of her thyroid and radiation, she continued to show up at her job as a veterinarian.

“I could have slept all day,” Thomas Reher, 41, said, “but there was no other option.” Between keeping up with her medical expenses and student loan bill, she also depleted her savings.

Now student loan borrowers with cancer have another option. They can pause their payments.

Under the provision, included in a recent bipartisan congressional spending package, borrowers can defer their student loan payments throughout their treatment for cancer and then for six months afterward.

Additionally, interest will not accrue during the postponement. Some cancer patients can rack up an extra $45,000 in student debt during their treatments, according to Critical Mass: The Young Adult Cancer Alliance.

“Cancer patients should not have to worry about their student loan payments while fighting for their lives,” said Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn, who pushed for the legislation.

Outstanding student debt in the U.S. has tripled over the last decade, and burdens Americans now more than auto or credit card debt. Average debt at graduation is currently around $30,000, up from $10,000 in the early 1990s.

More than 70,000 adults between the ages of 15 and 39 are diagnosed with cancer in the United States each year, and student debt is increasingly an issue for people in their 50s, 60s and even 70s, too.

“People who undergo cancer treatment have to deal with a lot of stress, and not just financial,” said Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of SavingForCollege.com. “Dealing with student loans is an additional source of stress.”

Many of the details still need to be worked out, said Elaine Griffin Rubin, senior contributor and communications specialist at Edvisors, a financial aid site.

In the meantime, contact your federal loan servicer for information about the deferment, Griffin Rubin said.

“Because there is a medical component to it,” she said, “it will likely need some sort of certification from a medical doctor.”

The U.S. Department of Education says to check back with their website periodically for more details.

If you’re struggling to repay your student loans for any reason, you might want to enroll in an income-driven repayment plan, which caps your monthly bill at a percentage of your income. (Some payments wind up being as little as $0).

You might qualify for an economic hardship deferment or a forbearance, a temporary postponement of your student loan payments during which interest accrues.

Only federal loans are covered by the new deferment for cancer patients.

“Borrowers with private student loans will need to contact their lenders,” Griffin Rubin said. “The lenders may be able to offer payment postponement options, but these options will likely still have the loan accruing interest.”

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