When Matt Fahey, a cameraman for Deadliest Catch, was diagnosed with colon cancer last November, he didn't have health insurance. He nonetheless went through with surgery and got stuck with a $51,000 bill. Facing six months of follow-up treatments and a six-figure total cost, bankruptcy seemed almost inevitable.
Instead, his cousin, Chuck Horton, a former professional fundraiser-turned-software-entrepreneur, stepped in and set up a Rally.org campaign called "Dumb Ass Cancer" to help pay for Fahey's treatment.
"We wanted something up and running quicker than a traditional fundraiser," says Horton. "Matt has a lot of friends on Facebook. We have a large extended family. We knew it was a good way to reach a lot of people really quickly."
They came up with the idea on Friday. A week later it was live. Within two days, they had raised around $7,000. (The fund is currently approaching $40,000.)
"People jumped in so we can have him focus on recovering rather than worry about where the money will come from," says Horton.
Fahey is not alone. An increasing number of people are turning to crowdfunding sites to pay for their health-care costs, to the point that it's becoming the number one category on some crowdfunding websites. Many campaigns — perhaps a majority — are for cancer treatment, but they also include help with HIV, gunshot wounds, organ transplants, and even infertility treatments. One campaign raised $171,525 for Farrah Soudani, who was critically injured in the Aurora shooting. Another hopes to raise $5,000 for an Iraq War veteran with Gulf War Illness.
Rally, which hosted Dumb Ass Cancer, is at the center of the trend. Originally intended as funding tool for political causes, it is now a platform for a wide range of fundraisers. People have used it to raise money for the March on Washington for Gun Control, for scientific research on great white sharks, and to bring the Buzkashi Boys actors to the Oscars from Afghanistan.
But over the past six months, health care has emerged as the site's top category, accounting for one in ten of their campaigns. "When we first conceived of Rally.org, we were acutely aware of walkathons and joint fundraising drives for various diseases," a Rally spokesperson told BuzzFeed. "However, we did not anticipate the pent-up demand for a fundraising platform for individuals from all walks of life to pay their medical bills."
"Given the seriousness of medical issues and related expenses, it makes sense that these campaigns generate the most support," says a spokeperson for GoFundMe, another platform that has watched health care become its most popular category.
"People are turning to crowdfunding because they are much more connected socially through the internet, and the ability to crowdfund is becoming less complex," YouCaring, another crowdfunding site, told BuzzFeed. Sixty-five percent of its campaigns are for medical issues. "Medical costs and the costs associated with sickness are completely out of hand. Many times when someone is sick they also cannot work, which causes even greater financial issues — even though they may have insurance."
There are even some sites devoted entirely to raising money for health care, such as GiveForward. RareGenomics charter is even narrower: It helps raise money for patients with rare genetic diseases to get genome sequencing tests.
Numbers are rising across the industry. In 2012, there were approximately nine times the number of health-care campaigns on Indiegogo as the year before, pushing it up to the fourth most popular category on the site.
The rise of treatment through crowdfunding corresponds with other worrying trends in health care. Health-care expenditures are the number one source of bankruptcy, according to a 2007 Harvard study published in the American Journal of Medicine. The majority of those filing for bankruptcy — 78% — had medical insurance when they first got sick.
"The best thing of the whole ordeal is seeing how much people love me and have helped," says Fahey. "Obviously the money is a reflection of that, but besides that, I have had a ton of support from friends and family."
As grateful as Fahey is for the campaign, he admits that fundraising while ill can be exhausting and says he was lucky that his family took on the responsibility.
"I went to one of the first fundraising meetings and I got frustrated. I was like, 'I have to go. I'm stressing out too much,'" says Fahey. "Cancer is a full-time job, especially with all the bills and paperwork I get."
Publicly asking for help also takes an emotional toll. "Personally I don't like being a charity case or asking for help," he says. Fahey says it took him a while to reach out to people on his Facebook page — he was worried about how it might look.
Recently, Fahey signed up for a Preexisting-Condition Insurance Plan — aka ObamaCare — but is still facing tens of thousands in bills. "My fear is one asshole will repeal it before I finish treatment and then it will start racking up even more [costs]," says Fahey.
So far Fahey's campaign has raised $38,000 out of the $65,000 goal. A separate, real-world fundraiser raised $7,000 — paling in comparison to the online contributions. But they still don't have enough to pay for his chemotherapy and radiation treatment, which he is about to begin.
"The journey is not over," says Fahey. "At this point, the financial part is harder than the treatment."