If you or your loved one is diagnosed with cancer, the toll on your wallet can be just as insidious as the disease itself. Here's how to manage the cost of cancer treatment.
When you receive a cancer diagnosis, financing the ensuing medical odyssey probably isn’t top of mind. Unfortunately, once treatment begins and bills start pouring in, many patients discover the financial toll of cancer is just as insidious as the disease itself.
More than a third (37.1 percent) of cancer patients are “seriously or very seriously” concerned about bankruptcy because of medical bills, according to a survey sponsored by the international nonprofit Cancer Support Community. Perhaps even more troubling, many patients fail to adhere to prescribed protocols because of hefty charges.
The cost of cancer treatment
With a $200 billion-plus annual price tag, cancer care is the most costly treatment offered by conventional medicine, says James W. Forsythe, MD, HMD, integrative medical oncologist and author of several cancer-related titles. “A single IV drug called ‘Avastin’ (which is typically given once every 3 weeks) can cost $8,000 to $12,000 dollars.”
Even if your medical insurance covers most of the cost of cancer treatment — and that’s a big IF — co-pays, alternative therapies, and medication costs add up fast, particularly when there’s a simultaneous hit in lost productivity. But paying for cancer care doesn’t have to put you in the poor house, particularly if you ask for help.
How to manage the cost of cancer treatment
- Take stock of your costs. While one study reported that 90 percent of patients want to know costs, and 94 percent of patients want to know when their copays are up, those price tags don’t include incidental expenses like parking fees, extra gasoline, and complementary therapies. At the same time, patients with demanding treatment schedules may need to work less or hire help at home. American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) experts suggest figuring out your expected costs soon after receiving a diagnosis so you can adjust your budget accordingly.
- Discuss your options. Talk to your doctor and oncologist about your financial concerns, and make sure you know how much you’ll have to pay for each treatment. While they may not know the ins and outs of your insurance coverage — or even how much treatments cost — they should be able to connect you with a social worker, case manager, or patient advocacy organization. A good way to start the conversation: Say, “I’m worried about costs related to my cancer treatment. Can we talk about my concerns?” Other critical questions: “Where can I get an idea of the total cost of treatment?” “If I can’t afford this treatment, are less costly options available?” and “Is there any way I can get help to pay for this treatment?” (Drug manufacturers often have patient assistance plans to help people pay for their meds.)
- Get organized. “Many people find that becoming well organized helps them gain a sense of control over all the information they receive, including finances,” say ASCO experts. Develop a filing system to easily retrieve information, create a spreadsheet that tracks bills and payments, or use an online program or app to stay on top of expenses. Don’t forget to include unreimbursed medical expenses, including dates of service, amount paid, and name of the provider. “You may be able to claim these expenses for tax purposes,” says ASCO.
- Request a case manager. Navigating the health insurance maze can be maddening. The first time you contact your insurance company after receiving a diagnosis, ask for a case manager so you can talk with the same person each time you call. Keep current copies of all insurance policies and refer to them by name and number in any communications about coverage.
- Take advantage of available resources. Many patients don’t realize there’s help available to cover the costs of co-pays, deductibles, coinsurance, travel expenses, and insurance premiums, says Molly Stewart, mission services director at Cancer Community Center. Contact organizations directly to learn more about their specific programs and services, including eligibility criteria, and talk with your healthcare team about local resources. There are also national service organizations. The Cancer Financial Assistance Coalition (CFAC) is a group of national organizations that provide financial help to patients. CFAC provides a searchable database of financial resources. CancerCare's financial assistance programs (800-813-4673) provide limited financial assistance for people affected by cancer.
- Don’t be afraid to crowdsource or fundraise. There’s no shame in admitting you’re in a bind. People want to help, but they’re often unsure what they can do. Enlist your network to help with costs of groceries, provide childcare, run errands, and handle other daily necessities while you focus on battling your disease. Sites like GoFundMe.com, MealTrain.com, and even social networks like Facebook make it easy to mobilize do-gooders.
March 30, 2020
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA