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The Dark Side of Cancer Survival

News of a cancer diagnosis is often met by disbelief, shock, and sorrow, and was once interpreted as an automatic death sentence. But as new technologies and treatment protocols have been introduced, the chances of cancer survival have improved dramatically. People proudly proclaim themselves as having won the battle, and survivors are held up as role models, warriors and victors.

Unfortunately, the celebrations of remission are often tempered by awareness of another struggle that few cancer patients discuss: the struggle to overcome the overwhelming debt that working-age cancer survivors often find themselves in.

According to a new study conducted by Dr. Matthew Banegas of the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research in Portland, Oregon,

one out of every three cancer survivors between the age of 18 and 64 end up in debt, and among that group over fifty percent have debt that’s greater than $10,000.

It’s no wonder that three percent are forced to file for bankruptcy. It is considered the norm for new cancer drugs to cost $10,000 per month, and in some cases the therapies can cost six times that. When held up against the costs of treating other conditions, there is simply no comparison.

There are number of factors that are contributing to the problem and increase the potential for an individual to face medical debt. These include lower incomes, younger ages, and using public rather than private health insurance, but the problem has been made worse by the fact that the cost of treating cancer has risen two to three times faster in the past few years than is true of other medical treatments – there is a correlating risk of bankruptcy.

Dr. Youseuf Zafar of the Duke Cancer Institute in Durham, North Carolina had previously conducted an earlier study on the impacts of cancer on financial health, and he had found that the impact goes beyond the individual, with family members often ending p working additional hours in order to compensate for income lost and rising costs.

“Multiple studies have shown that cancer patients and survivors are at risk for facing treatment-related financial burden, with a small minority at risk for extreme burden in the form of personal bankruptcy,” he says. “It was interesting really for us to find out that a third of our study population reported that they incurred debt or had to borrow money.” The impact of a diagnosis often means that patients are unable to meet their work obligations, and that can mean less income as well as the loss of insurance.

Though there is interest in determining whether specific types of cancer have a greater impact on financial health than others, particularly due to the types of treatment and costs of specific drugs, that information was not part of Banegas’ study.

It is important to note that there are a number of valuable resources available to provide financial assistance to those who are fighting cancer. These include the LIVESTRONG foundation, which has gained a national reputation for its ability to connect cancer patients with assistance programs and agencies. As for Dr. Banegas, one of the conclusions that he reached in conducting his study was that physicians need a greater understanding of the financial impact that treatment has on patients.

“As oncologists, we spend a great deal of time talking to patients about the long-term physical side effects of the treatment. We could do a better job of talking about the potential for financial harm.”

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