The Serious Financial Side Effects of Cancer Treatment

October 21, 2014
Amber Bauer, ASCO staff

After being diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, a high school teacher struggles with figuring out how he will pay for his cancer treatment and keep from going broke. Although this is the basis for the hugely popular TV series Breaking Bad, for many people living with cancer, figuring out how to deal with the financial fallout of cancer and cancer treatment is a stark reality.

Almost a third of cancer survivors in the United States may be experiencing financial or work-related hardships, according to the results of a study that will be presented at this weekend’s Palliative Care in Oncology Symposium. share on twitter Of the nearly 1,600 cancer survivors surveyed, 27% reported at least one financial problem, such as debt or bankruptcy. In addition, 37% said they had to modify their work plans, such as taking extended time off or delaying retirement, because of cancer treatment.

“We found that many cancer survivors, particularly those who are younger or from underserved populations, experience financial or work-related hardship—even when insured and years out from treatment,” said lead study author Robin Whitney, RN, BSN, a cancer survivor and PhD student at the University of California, Davis, Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing.

To cope with this financial burden, many people with cancer are forced to change their lifestyle and medical care, according to the results of a separate survey that will be presented at the same meeting. Although most people do not go to the extremes depicted in Breaking Bad, they do make difficult choices that could affect their long-term physical and financial health, such as not filling a prescription, taking less medication than prescribed, spending less on basics like food and clothing, borrowing money, and spending their savings.

“Addressing these challenges is an important aspect of providing quality cancer care, because they can substantially impact quality of life and health outcomes,” Whitney said.

A study presented at last week’s Quality Care Symposium suggests that the Medicare Part D Extra Help program improves adherence to hormonal therapy after breast cancer surgery. The Extra Help program subsidizes medications, eliminating or reducing out-of-pocket costs. For hormonal therapy, this can range from $155 to $428 per year on average. Usually doctors recommend continuing hormonal therapy for at least five years.

“Patients are more likely to take their medications if they are able to afford them,” said lead study author Alana Biggers, MD, MPH, a former internal medicine resident at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, Wisc., and currently an Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine at the University of Illinois-Chicago.   “Our study shows that federal policy interventions that help cover out-of-pocket costs have the potential to reduce the breast cancer outcome gap by race and ethnicity.”

The video below provides more advice from both health care professionals and survivors on ways to navigate the financial challenges associated with cancer. It is being offered through a four-part “Navigating Challenges” series for people newly diagnosed with cancer facing real-world barriers to high-quality cancer care.

This ASCO patient education video series was made possible by a grant from the LIVESTRONG Foundation to the Conquer Cancer Foundation.

A full-text transcript is available.