Julie Hlebik of Norristown was excited to go to college, but before she earned a degree, she got cancer.

Her education journey turned into a nightmare of doctors' visits, chemotherapy, proton therapy — and student-loan debt piling up.

"I just kept getting ill. After the first year of cancer, all of my savings from working before and during the first year were gone," Hlebik said. In six years, her balance ballooned from about $11,500 to $18,000 — just on interest.

College students such as Hlebik can't discharge education loans in bankruptcy even if they get sick with serious illnesses such as cancer. They can, however, defer paying, but with interest continuing to accrue.

Student borrowers file paperwork at least every year, sometimes more often, to the Department of Education and loan servicers for most deferments and forbearances. These requests to postpone or suspend payments aren't automatic, and require a formal request to your loan servicer.

Hlebik, a Montgomery County native, graduated from Methacton High School and took out college loans of $7,125 and $4,409 from two lenders. After a year at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, she changed majors, quit school to work and save money, and started repaying her loans based on income-driven repayments.

In 2012, when she was 23, Hlebik was about to reenroll in school when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, cancer in her lymph nodes. Over the next several years, she would go into remission, only to have cancer return three times, around her liver and behind her aorta.

Meanwhile, interest on her student loans "continued to accrue at the original interest rate" at about 6 percent, she said. "People need help during a dark time," she added.

Every six months, she filled out student-loan forbearance forms. In the meantime, she endured years of stem-cell treatment, proton therapy, and chemotherapy. She lost her independence, moving back home with her parents after starting and stopping several jobs due to her cancer treatment. Sometimes, the loan servicers lost the deferment forms, or "said they never got the forms."

Her parents, Jim and Ellin Hlebik, contacted then-U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan (R., Delaware), whose office inquired on Julie's behalf with the Department of Education. The DOE wrote back in 2016, saying that only a "total and permanent disability" would allow for discharge of her loans.

Over her treatment, Julie's loan amounts grew to $18,000 — nearly all due to accruing interest. Finally, her parents paid off the loans in desperation in March 2018, fearing that the interest would never stop. Ellin, 65, and Jim, 73, are both retired, so they withdrew the money from their retirement accounts. For Julie's medical bills, they also paid a total of $20,000 out of pocket.

One loan "of $7,125 was accruing at 6.8 percent — and there was no stopping it. So, 80 percent of what we repaid on Julie's loans was interest," said her father.

New bill in Congress

Is there a fix? Potentially.

Congress has a bill under consideration that would stop interest on student loans during a period in which a borrower is receiving treatment for cancer.

The Deferment for Active Cancer Treatment Act would allow borrowers diagnosed with cancer to defer on their payments and suspend the accrual of interest until six months after the patient finished receiving treatment.

Julie Hlebik got an Australian shepherd dog, Korra, over the summer and wants to train her as a therapy dog for cancer patients.
Courtesy Julie Hlebik
Julie Hlebik got an Australian shepherd dog, Korra, over the summer and wants to train her as a therapy dog for cancer patients.

"This bill will help them focus on getting healthy, instead of worrying about how they are going to pay back their student loans," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D., Fla.). An identical version of Nelson's bill was introduced last year in the House by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) and Ed Perlmutter (D., Colo.).

The bill, which was introduced in July, essentially would remove financial penalties incurred because of a cancer diagnosis, and students in Pennsylvania would no doubt benefit: The state ranks as one of the highest debt loads with total outstanding student-loan debt of $61.8 billion as of 2016, as well as a high number of student-loan complaints to the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. A full list of the complaints nationally is available here: http://bit.ly/CFPBStudentDebt.

Skopos Labs, an AI company that makes predictions on proposed government legislation, gives the bill just a 4 percent chance of being enacted.

So, for now, cancer patients have only deferment or forbearances as options. For more information about these options, visit the DOE website: studentaid.ed.gov.

Each year, Critical Mass: The Young Adult Cancer Alliance estimates, 70,000 American adolescents and young adults between 15 to 39 years of age are diagnosed with cancer. Young adults represent 8 percent of all new cancer diagnoses annually.

Hlebik's parents said they stay on top of the medical bills to avoid financial disaster.

"This has been a double financial whammy for us." Hlebik's mother said. "While it won't help Julie now, it will help other young cancer patients in the future, so we can't wait for this bill to pass."

Julie's ash-blond hair has grown back out. She recently turned 30 and is hoping to stay in remission. "I've talked to other cancer survivors and 10 years out, they're still fatigued and have memory problems due to chemo," she said. "Eventually, I'd like to go back to graduate — and get on with my life as an independent adult, support myself, and live a humble life."