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Increased Out-of-Pocket Costs Financially Crippling Cancer Survivors

June 21, 2019

Cancer survival rates can run the gamut depending on factors like the type and stage of the cancer. It’s those variables that result in outcomes that are all over the map, but the one constant is the physical and emotional toll that treatment takes on those battling this disease. Now comes a new report that says a significant percentage of survivors have more to worry about than just their cancer returning.

About 25% of U.S. cancer survivors have had problems paying their medical bills, according to a report issued by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Additionally, one-third of survivors admit to being worried about the cost of medical care. Findings also indicate that cancer survivors have considerably higher annual out-of-pocket expenses when compared to those who didn’t have to fight cancer.

The report’s first author—Donatus Ekwueme, a senior health economist at the CDC in Atlanta—noted how the increase in the number of people who beat cancer is influencing the financial aspect of being a survivor. In its coverage on the study, CNN reported that there were nearly 17 million cancer survivors in the United States.

"The population of cancer survivors is growing and many struggle to pay for costs of medical care," he said. “As a result, some survivors are worried about paying and have problems paying for medical care, and some are even forced to file for bankruptcy."

For years, the financial focus on cancer has been the rising cost of treatment. Between 2006 and 2015, the average monthly oncology drug costs doubled from $7,103 to $15,535—and that rate of increase doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. In 2018, there were more than 1.7 million new cancer cases in the U.S., with an estimated $147 billion going toward oncology drugs alone.

But the CDC’s report shows that the financial burden doesn’t stop when treatment does.

The average out-of-pocket spending for cancer survivors tallied about $1,000 or an approximate 60% increase over outlaid expenditures for those without a history of cancer. The 25% who said they had problems paying their bills needed to borrow money, go into debt, or even file for bankruptcy in order to cover their medical costs.

It is important to note that the data, which came from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, was self-reported and did not take into account the stage or type of cancer involved. Researchers examined data related to cancer survivors ages 18 to 64 in the United States between the years 2011 and 2016.

Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told CNN that it is “not surprising” that cancer patients are struggling financially after beating their illness. He also cited a connection between healthcare costs and the fragility of one’s mental state, saying an inability to pay for our healthcare bills can exacerbate the sadness and depression felt after a cancer diagnosis.

As with most health-related initiatives, advanced communication and awareness are key factors. The American Society of Clinical Oncology released guidance in 2009 that suggests doctors should play a more active role in reviewing the out-of-pocket costs for cancer care.

Dr. Benjamin also emphasized the importance of early detection. “The best way to deal with cancer and cancer costs is to prevent it from occurring in the first place or catching the disease early so that it's in an earlier stage of diagnosis and therefore the treatment is easier and less costly,” he told CNN.

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