Cancer care is not routine, treatment can cost thousands of dollars per month
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Stephanie, 38, recently took a financial step forward when she made her last debt payment. Not student debt, however. The debt came from her treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphoma – her cancer care. Diagnosed at the age of 30, Stéphanie was successfully treated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy and has been cancer free for several years. However, the bills for hospital care, tests and treatment stuck with her.
Stephanie had insurance. But she is self-employed and her plan has a high deductible. She was financially responsible for anything that her insurance didn’t cover, and it added quickly. By the time she finished her treatment, Stephanie was in debt for thousands of dollars.
What is financial toxicity?
In cancer treatment, toxicity refers to the harmful effects of treatment on healthy cells. Chemotherapy drugs, for example, can be effective against cancer but also damage healthy cells.
Financial toxicity works the same way. You can be diagnosed with cancer in a healthy financial situation – by paying your monthly bills, putting money aside, using your health insurance to cover routine medical expenses. But once you need cancer treatment, things can change. Since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, routine care is often fully covered by insurance, but cancer care is not routine. Some drugs cost thousands of dollars a month, and even Medicare may not start to cover all of the costs.
The hidden costs of cancer and treatment include the loss of time from work because you feel sick or need treatment. Some people use up their paid vacation. Other costs include child care, household help, and travel for treatment.
Who knows about financial toxicity?
Almost anyone who receives cancer treatment can experience financial difficulties. Seniors, young cancer patients like Stephanie, people of color and those whose cancer has spread are most likely to have financial side effects on their care, according to a patient advocate.[i]
We spoke with Raymond Wadlow, MD, a medical oncologist at the Inova Schar Cancer Institute in Virginia to collect tips that have worked for his patients and to help you get the most out of your healthcare team’s expertise.
Should you tell your doctor about this side effect?
Yes, replies Dr Wadlow. If you even suspect that you might be having financial problems as a result of your cancer care, it’s important to talk to your doctor right away.
The cost of new cancer drugs has increased by more than 10% each year for the past five years, according to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Blood Cancers.[ii] Planning ahead and communicating clearly with your oncologist can help reduce stress and the long-term effects on your finances. Wadlow explains that while you can equate “best” with “most expensive,” when it comes to treatment, there are often several alternatives, some more affordable than others.
What about complementary cancer treatments?
You may think that you cannot afford regular massage once you have cancer. But in fact, complementary medicine treatments such as massage, acupuncture, or yoga classes can support your immune system and help you heal.
Making room for this type of care, which is often not covered by insurance, in your budget is another reason to discuss with your healthcare team how to manage the costs of your cancer care.