About a Quarter of Diagnosed Women Go Into Debt to Pay for Breast Cancer Treatment, Minority Women More Likely to Have Financial Problems

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Because of better diagnostic tests and advances in breast cancer treatments, more people are living longer than ever after being diagnosed.

More research is starting to focus on the special issues faced by long-term survivors, including an increased risk of other diseases, mental health issues, and financial issues.

People who survive 2 or more years after a cancer diagnosis are considered long-term survivors.

A study suggests that about 25% of long-term breast cancer survivors go into debt to pay for their treatment. Minority women are more likely to go into debt to pay for breast cancer treatment than white women.

The research was published online on March 24, 2014 by the Journal of Clinical Oncology. Read the abstract of “Long-Term Financial Burden of Breast Cancer: Experiences of a Diverse Cohort of Survivors Identified Through Population-Based Registries.”

The researchers looked at information in SEER databases for the Detroit and Los Angeles areas to identify women diagnosed with breast cancer from 2005 to 2007 in those two cities. SEER databases are large registries of cancer cases from sources throughout the United States maintained by the National Institutes of Health.

Women diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer -- cancer that has spread to a part of the body away from the breast -- were not included in the study.

The researchers then sent the women surveys asking questions about the long-term financial burden of breast cancer, including questions on:

  • were the women worse off financially since being diagnosed
  • was worse financial status due to breast cancer
  • total out-of-pocket medical expenses and how these were paid for
  • amount of debt because of medical expenses
  • any change in employment status
  • degree of financial “privation” -- going without medicine, missing a doctor’s appointment or mammogram, letting health insurance lapse, having utilities turned off, or having to move out of one’s home because of medical expenses

The women were surveyed twice: once about 9 months after diagnosis and again 4 years after being diagnosed.

Of the 1,502 women who filled out both surveys, half reported paying less than $2,000 in out-of-pocket medical expenses and half reported paying more than $2,000. More specifically:

  • 17% of the women said they spent more than $5,000 on medical treatment
  • 12% of the women said they were still in debt and paying for medical treatment 4 years after being diagnosed

Overall, about 25% of the women surveyed said their financial status had gotten worse since being diagnosed with breast cancer. About 77% of these women said this worse financial status was at least partly because of breast cancer.

The researchers found several factors that were linked to a worse financial status because of breast cancer, including:

  • having a household income of less than $50,000
  • being younger than 65 years old
  • working part-time when diagnosed
  • working fewer hours after being diagnosed
  • lack of extensive prescription drug coverage
  • breast cancer recurrence (the cancer coming back)
  • having chemotherapy

Minority women were more likely to be in debt from medical expenses than white women:

  • 9% of white women were in debt
  • 15% of black women were in debt
  • 17% of English-speaking Latina women were in debt
  • 10% of Spanish-speaking Latina women were in debt

Nearly 20% of the women said they experienced some type of privation -- going without something because they had to pay for medical expenses. In some cases the women went without medicine because they couldn’t afford it. Black women and English-speaking Latina women were more likely to have gone without something because of medical expenses:

  • 11% of black women said they had their utilities turned off because they couldn’t pay their bills
  • 4% of all the women said they had to move out of their homes because of medical expenses

The results of this study are troubling. It’s worrisome to know that so many women are having financial problems because of breast cancer, and it’s very upsetting to know that women are skipping treatments and losing their homes because of medical costs.

If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer and don't have insurance or are unemployed, paying for treatment may seem overwhelming. Don't panic and don't skip any treatments or doctor's visits. There are resources available to help you.

Someone at your doctor’s office may be able to give you a list of organizations that offer financial assistance for breast cancer medicines and care, as well as local organizations that offer financial assistance for your practical needs such as transportation, food, and child care. Many pharmaceutical companies have set up special funds to help pay for the cost of their medicines.

In the Breastcancer.org Paying for Your Care section, there are resources based in the United States that can help you. If you live outside the United States, ask your doctor about resources in your country.

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