By Shane Ryan
We all know that receiving a cancer diagnosis is traumatic. When patients and their families are faced with such a potentially life-threatening situation, the first thought is often that they’ll be willing to do anything that’s needed to fight it. However, the journey can be laced with many sources of distress, and the financial impact of treating cancer is one of them. Since October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Nursing@Simmons, the online family nurse practitioner program at Simmons College, wanted to dig deeper into the specific impact that the rising costs of breast cancer are having on individuals in the U.S.
What are the costs?
In 2010, the cost of treating breast cancer was about $16.5 billion in the United States — higher than any other type of cancer. This is expected to increase to $20.5 billion by 2020. Individual costs vary, depending on the stage of the malignancy and treatment options selected.
In the midst of the distress of receiving a cancer diagnosis, many patients feel unsure about discussing money when a treatment plan is being created. That’s why it’s essential that the entire team be involved to understand each patient’s individual situation, the cost of recommended treatments for that specific patient, and what the financial impact will be.
A recent study from the University of North Carolina shed light on this issue. Researchers found that uninsured cancer patients often pay anywhere from two to 43 times what Medicare would pay for chemotherapy, as well as higher rates for physician visits.
What impact has this had on the workforce?
According to the American Cancer Society, the estimated total cost of cancer is more than $180 billion per year in health care expenses and lost productivity. Since breast cancer ranks highest among all cancers regarding costs, its impact on the workforce is significant as well.
Depending on the state of their health, many patients continue to work throughout their treatment regimens. Since frequent trips to a health care provider are typically needed, the ability to do so largely depends upon how much flexibility and support they receive from their employers. If a patient’s treatments or condition interferes with the ability to make a living, further financial burdens will be added to the high cost of care.
How do patients handle an inability to afford treatment?
Unfortunately, many patients struggle with the inability to afford treatment, and end up making some difficult decisions when faced with this dilemma. According to an American Cancer Society survey, due to the high costs, many cancer patients are cutting prescriptions, not going to their doctor, and not getting preventive services. In addition, the survey found that among cancer patients, two in five have difficulty paying health care costs, one in four has used up all of their personal savings, and one in four has been contacted by a collection agency. To further illustrate the struggle and financial burden, one in three adults has had difficulties with their health insurance plan, one in three adults younger than 65 has difficulties affording medications — with another 23 percent saying they cut pills in half or skip doses. Rounding out these truly unfortunate statistics, almost one in eight have declared bankruptcy. Needless to say, the stresses of these costs add to the already-difficult task of coping with a cancer diagnosis.
What options are available to advocate on their behalf?
There are a variety of organizations that can advocate on the behalf of patients with cancer — some providing assistance with financial needs. Often, patients must meet a specific set of criteria, and some organizations only deal with specific cancer diagnoses. However, there are a number of resources like The American Cancer Society’s “Health Insurance and Financial Assistance for the Cancer Patient” program, which provides valuable information on a variety of topics to help cope with the financial burden of cancer care. The Cancer Financial Assistance Coalition is another valuable resource, creating a joint effort among member organizations to “help cancer patients experience better health and well-being by limiting financial challenges” through a variety of mechanisms. Others are specifically geared toward the need of breast cancer patients, such as BreastCancer.org, which offers an array of tips and resources to help patients manage the financial impact of care, and Susan G. Komen which offers a helpline with trained staff members to help them find the best resources.
The costs of breast cancer in the U.S. are having a major impact on the quality of life that affected patients can enjoy — even if they experience treatment success. But by working together and advocating for their needs, we can all help to lessen the burden that they face.
Shane Ryan is the community manager for Nursing@Simmons, the online family nurse practitioner program delivered by Simmons College. Shane is an alumnus of The George Washington University and is passionate about health and wellness, travel, and social justice.