For almost a decade, Brian Burlacoff, an advisor with Sun Life Financial (Canada) Inc. in Toronto, used a persuasive but objective approach when offering critical illness and disability insurance policies to his clients. But after discovering a lump the size of a chestnut under his arm in June 2009, his pitch took on an entirely new tone.

Burlacoff, a non-smoker who exercised frequently and who had no history of cancer in his family, was shocked to discover that the small lump on his arm was actually non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of blood cancer. “On that day in the doctor’s office,” he says, “my whole life changed.”

The experience also changed Burlacoff’s approach to selling living benefits. “It gave me a whole new conviction when talking about the need for having both critical illness and disability policies,” he says. “I never thought it would happen to me, but it did.”

At first glance, Burlacoff bears some similarities to the black tiger sculpture that stands as a centrepiece on a cabinet in his office; Burlacoff has a strong stature and a tanned complexion. But, like the glass tiger, Burlacoff’s muscular form belies vulnerability; his recent illness required him to take a leave of absence from his practice to undergo six rounds of chemotherapy between July 2009 to August 2010.

“On the first day, you get a dosage of the chemotherapy,” Burlacoff says. “Then, you spend the next 20 days lying on a couch. Then, you do it all over again.”

Because Burlacoff had purchased a CI policy six years prior to his diagnosis, he was able to take the time off without a second thought about the lost income.

“I couldn’t imagine someone going through chemo and worrying about bills at the same time,” he says, “Thankfully, with the payouts from disability and critical illness coverage, I didn’t have to worry about my finances.”

And when the treatment was over, Burlacoff was able to reward himself: “It was nice to know that at the end of my treatment run, I was able to recuperate mentally by going on a vacation — and still have a running business to come back to.”

Many clients are hesitant to buy critical illness coverage because they don’t believe they will get sick, Burlacoff says. But there is a good chance they will, he insists: “A person at the age of 35 is six to eight times more likely to get cancer, a heart attack or a stroke than they are to die before hitting age 65.”

The challenge most advisors face in convincing clients of the value of CI coverage is that people are more likely to buy insurance against risks to parts of their life that they can “touch, see and feel” — such as their homes, their valuables and the lives of their loved ones, Burlacoff says. Many clients also believe the disability policies provided through their employers will be enough to cover them in the event of an illness.

However, as Burlacoff explains to his clients, disability and CI insurance provide distinctly different forms of coverage. For example, if a client takes time off work because of serious migraine headaches, a disability policy may cover that time off, whereas a CI policy would not. On the other hand, if a 52-year-old client suffers a mild heart attack, a disability policy might not pay if the client is deemed able to return to work within 30 days; a CI policy would pay in that situation.@page_break@In the case of a serious heart attack, however, both policies would provide benefits. It is because of these varying degrees of coverage that Burlacoff teaches his clients the concept of a “blanket of coverage.” Says Burlacoff: “You don’t want to leave any risk on the table uncovered.”

Taking a “holistic” approach to financial planning, Burlacoff also uses the metaphor of a hockey game to explain to his clients the need for different insurance products. Investments are the “offensive” strategy for building wealth, he says, but for every offensive forward, clients must have an equivalent insurance policy “on defence.”

“Insurance policies such as critical illness and disability guard against the most important asset you have in your working life, which is you,” Burlacoff says. “What happens if you get sick and you need to take time off from work, but then can’t pay your mortgage or your kids’ tuition? All of sudden, you are funding your house or paying for that tuition out of your RRSP, and that can set your goals for retirement back substantially.”

Lump-sum payouts from CI policies also give clients the option to get the best treatment available, including those not covered by provincial health-care plans. For example, your client may wish to receive a treatment for cancer that’s available only in the U.S. and not covered by a provincial health-care plan. “These policies give you the ability,” Burlacoff says, “to focus on doing whatever it takes to get well.”

Burlacoff started in the insurance industry in 1989, when he joined his father’s insurance practice with the former Mutual Life Assurance Co., which years later became a part of Sun Life through a series of acquisitions. With a master’s degree in accounting from Ontario’s University of Waterloo and an MBA from York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto — as well as an outgoing personality — he was well suited to a career as an insurance advisor.

“It’s a huge field with many different products to keep it interesting,” Burlacoff says. “If you treat your clients well, you will always have more business than you will ever need.”

Over the years, Burlacoff has grown to see his role as similar to that of a doctor: “I look after my clients’ financial health. People are very confused about their finances, and I help them stay focused.”

Burlacoff believes in discussing all options with his clients. Advisors who prefer to restrict the discussion to only a few insurance products are not doing their clients justice, he says: “If you aren’t giving them all the information about the products out there, you are leaving them unprotected.”

There is no right or wrong time to discuss CI and disability coverage with clients, Burlacoff says. He generally tries to broach the subject with clients as soon as he can.

“I always try to start off by educating my clients about all the options available to them,” he says, “and give them the pros and cons for each product and its design.”

The best way to discuss insurance products, according to Burlacoff, is to focus on the client, not the product.

“I try to give [clients] all the information I can,” he says. “You have to give the client the ‘big picture’ of what these products do. After that point, it’s up to them.”

Since Burlacoff’s cancer has gone into remission, he has added to his glass sculpture collection, which has grown to include about 10 pieces placed throughout his office. His latest find is a multicoloured glass plate he picked up at a convention in Las Vegas in March. “Thanks to my critical illness and disability insurance,” he says, “I can afford to keep travelling.” IE