Women's Health

The Unspoken Hardships of Breast Cancer and How to Overcome Them

The Unspoken Hardships of Breast Cancer and How to Overcome Them

Receiving a cancer diagnosis can be hard enough, let alone having to deal with the financial burden of treatment. In 2010 in the United States, the cost of treating breast cancer was over $16 billion dollars. By 2020, this number is expected to reach up to $20.5 billion.

According to the NCI, the average cost of initial breast cancer treatment for women who are 65 years old and above is over $23,000 and thousands of dollars are being spent on a monthly basis on ongoing costs throughout the period of recovery. Healthcare is getting more and more expensive by the day, with growing awareness among patients as well as healthcare professionals.

Depending on the stage of the cancer and the selected treatment methods, individual costs vary greatly. For this reason, many patients remain unsure about finances when it comes to creating a proper treatment plan. One such instance is the case of Molly Macdonald.

Financial toxicity

In the spring of 2005, Molly was diagnosed with breast cancer. After receiving treatment for about six months, her home was put up for foreclosure and she began to rely on food banks in order to support herself and her 5 children. “I had gone through a financially devastating divorce, had no savings, and no ability to weather the finances of treatment. I met so many other working women experiencing what we call financial toxicity as a side-effect of cancer” said MacDonald. Since them, Molly has founded nonprofit ‘The Pink Fund’ in Michigan with the aim of financially help other patients with breast cancer. ‘The Pink Fund’ works by providing breast cancer patients undergoing treatment 3 months of non-medical costs of living expenses.

Molly’s case is simply one out of many. According to a survey conducted by ‘The Pink Fund’ on 1,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer, over 65% stated that they mostly fear the high costs of cancer treatment as opposed to breast cancer itself. What’s more, in another study, 73% of women with breast cancer considered cutting their medication or skipping treatment in order to save money and 41% in fact did so. Recent research findings have found that:

  • 47% of women diagnosed with breast cancer are using their retirement funds to pay out-of-pocket expenses
  • 37% of women who are breast cancer survivors are in debt due to cancer treatment
  • 36% of women diagnosed with breast cancer lost their jobs or are unable to work due to cancer treatment
  • 26% of women diagnosed with breast cancer are paying for cancer treatment with their credit cards
  • 23% of women with breast cancer almost went bankrupt due to medical expenses

According to Jean Sachs, CEO at Living Beyond Breast Cancer – “nobody is prepared for a diagnosis but people are shocked to find when they are diagnosed how expensive it is — even if you have insurance” she said. At Living Beyond Breast Cancer, advocates strive to help patients establish proper payment plans so that they do not have to put costs on credit or dip into their savings. “We try to encourage women to understand health insurance and be an informed consumer. Hopefully you are doing that before you’re diagnosed, but after you’re diagnosed it becomes more important than ever” noted Sachs. Sachs continued that “people are surprised to find these are not families that think of themselves as financially strapped. These are people who were doing fine before cancer, but cancer is enough to push them over the edge”.

A long-term study

A research study published in March 2014 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology known as Long-Term Financial Burden of Breast Cancer: Experiences of a Diverse Cohort of Survivors Identified Through Population-Based Registries, looked into identifying the association between breast cancer and financial status. 3,133 women were surveyed approximately two times: 9 months following diagnosis and 4 years after being diagnosed with breast cancer. The women were sent surveys with questions relating to the financial aspects of breast cancer: out-of-pocket expenses, debt, change in employment status, degree of financial privation, etc. Out of 1,502 women who responded, 50% reported to paying under $2,000 in out-of-pocket expenses and the other half reported to paying more than $2,000. Furthermore, 11% of African-American women said they had their utilities shut off due to inability to pay their bills, while 4% of all women stated they had to leave their homes due to an increase in medical expenses.

The researchers found that the women whose financial status worsened due to breast cancer diagnosis were those:

  • Younger than 65 years old
  • Earning an income of less than $50,000
  • Working fewer hours after being diagnosed with breast cancer
  • Working part-time after being diagnosed with breast cancer
  • Receiving chemotherapy
  • Experiencing breast cancer recurrence

25% of the participants revealed that their financial status had worsened following breast cancer diagnosis. The results from the study led researchers to conclude that there are several factors relating to the financial hardships following breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. The ethnic and racial minority group of patients appeared to be most susceptible to privations and financial decline. Due to the fact that breast cancer ranks the highest among all other types of cancers with regards to expenses, its impact has drastic effects.

If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer and you are unemployed or you do not have insurance, the medical expenses relating to treatment may be distressing. However, there are several organizations available that can help you to deal with the financial aspects of breast cancer by offering assistance to your practical needs. Examples of such organizations include The American Cancer Society’s “Health Insurance and Financial Assistance for the Cancer Patient” program and “The Cancer Financial Assistance Coalition”. Above all, these organizations aim to help you manage and cope with the financial burden of cancer care. BreastCancer.org is a website that offers several tips for breast cancer patients to help them find the best resources at their disposal for their individual situations. Moreover, there are several pharmaceutical companies that have established unique funds to help pay for costs of medication.

Final thoughts

Depending on your overall well-being, you may choose to continue working while undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Due to the fact that several doctors’ visits are necessary, your ability to emotionally and financially support yourself will vary according to the flexibility and support that you receive in the workplace. If your condition or treatment method interferes with your ability to make a living, this may add to the high costs relating to cancer care. Therefore, it is vital that you ask for guidance from your doctor and cancer care team. They are involved in understanding your individual situation, that is – the costs of recommended treatments specific to your condition and the financial impact of such costs specific to your financial status. You are not alone. The costs of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment in the United States is continuing to have a major impact on the overall quality of life of affected patients – even those who have successfully undergone treatment and are in remission. Yet, by working together with your cancer care team and researching the different aspects of your financial needs, you can ensure communication and lessen the burden that you are facing.