Coping with High Costs of Cancer

Treatment // May 24, 2017

The cost of cancer treatment has been making headlines for years. Cancer drugs are notoriously expensive, and unfortunately the cost is only likely to continue to rise. In the past decade alone, reports show that prices have increased from $5,000 – $10,000 for a year of treatment to over $100,000 by 2012. Considering the average household yearly income is about $52,000 and even fell by 8% during this time period, it’s clear these treatments costs are simply not affordable for most families.

The cost of treatment is becoming a huge burden for cancer patients. This dilemma is known as “financial toxicity.” It can become a matter of being able to pay for groceries and household bills or paying for potentially life saving treatment.

The rising cost is causing some patients to skip or delay their treatment and put their chance of survival in jeopardy. For patients with a rare cancer like mesothelioma which already has a poor prognosis, putting off treatment can mean a death sentence. While the costs won’t become more affordable any time soon, there are steps patients can take to alleviate some of the stress and receive much needed healthcare.

The Cost of Cancer Treatment

A variety of factors go into the high cost of treatment. Before cancer treatment even begins, patients can face quickly growing bills from diagnostic procedures alone. A single imaging scan can cost anywhere from $800 – $1600.

Additionally, many patients face other expenses on top of the treatment itself. Mesothelioma patients, for example, often need to travel to reach the specialists located around the country. Because it is such a rare cancer, many patients find it difficult to find a hospital or clinic near them that can effectively treat the disease.

The bulk of the cost comes from the cancer treatment itself. Standard treatments such as chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation can be very expensive. Chemotherapy itself costs thousands of dollars for a single treatment, so one round of chemotherapy across a few weeks can reach upwards of $50,000.

While many patients seek standard treatment methods, others find hope with emerging treatments. Immunotherapy has shown promise for a variety of cancers, including mesothelioma. Keytruda (pembrolizumab) in particular has seen positive results among some patients. But it comes at a high cost.

In most recent estimates, the drug is said to cost about $13,000 each month, or about $156,000 for a year of treatment. While some patients are given the opportunity to try treatments like this through clinical trials, where the bulk of these costs will be paid for by the sponsors of the study, many will face these costs on their own. Even with insurance, it’s estimated patients on average pay 20 – 30% out-of-pocket for cancer drugs. Considering for many patients treatment can go beyond one calendar year, the bills only continue to pile up and add to the strain.

Diagnosed with mesothelioma? Learn your options to help with high costs

Effects of these High Costs

Struggling to pay for treatment has caused patients to gamble with their lives. The financial strain has caused many patients to delay their needed care or skip treatment. According to a 2013 study in The Oncologist, one quarter of cancer patients chose not to fill a prescription because of its cost. About 20% of patients filled part of a prescription or took less than the amount prescribed to help save money.

The study also showed patients greatly altered their lifestyle to try to afford their treatment. They sold their possessions, worked longer hours, cut back spending on food and clothing, and wiped out their savings. Because of such unaffordable costs, researchers found about 3% of cancer patients ultimately declare bankruptcy. Overall, cancer patients are almost 3 times more likely to file than those who have never been diagnosed.

Patients’ financial distress can impair their mental health, quality of life, and lead them to stray from their treatment plan. Several studies have suggested cancer patients’ financial strains have lead them to suffer severe stress, poor physical health, and less satisfaction from relationships. Such financial toxicity is also linked to a higher mortality rate.

Cancer accounts for nearly 1 in 4 deaths in the United States. The American Cancer Society estimates this year about 600,902 people will die from cancer. Overcoming some of these financial barriers involved in treatment and even early detection of these diseases can help influence these statistics.

Steps Patients Can Take

There are a few ways patients can help protect themselves from these severe financial burdens without sacrificing their treatment.

Talk to your doctor about treatment options: Before beginning any treatment plan, it’s important to know all your options – and this goes beyond thinking of just the cost. Make sure to ask your doctor what tests or procedures are absolutely medically necessary, as these can add onto the medical bills quickly. Your doctor can also explain the expenses involved with different treatments, and what options might show similar promise at a lower cost.

Be as informed as possible: In general, research has shown that many Americans have rather poor health literacy. Health insurance in particular is an area many don’t really understand well. Learning about your insurance policy and understanding what will and won’t be covered can spare you from a scary financial surprise later on.

Find a patient assistance program: There are various patient assistance programs and organizations that work to help patients be able to afford these expensive cancer drugs. Partnership for Prescription Assistance (PPA) is one resource that can provide patients information on over 400 participating programs for a variety of drugs, including Keytruda.

For patients diagnosed with mesothelioma, there may be other options. Talk to someone about your individual case to determine what other financial assistance might be available.

Patients shouldn’t have to sacrifice quality of care because of high treatment costs. It’s time insurance agencies, drug companies, and healthcare providers band together to determine how to make these treatments more affordable.