American Cancer Patients are Being Bankrupted by their Treatment

According to a publication from MarketWatch, many people living with cancer are going broke just trying to stay alive. Millennials seem to be particularly vulnerable to falling into a self-perpetuating spiral of debt that can accompany a cancer diagnosis.

Getting Cancer is Expensive

In fact, it seems to be one of the most expensive things you can do. According to a 2018 study conducted by the American Journal of Medicine, over 42% of the just under 10 million people diagnosed with cancer between the years of 2000 and 2012 said they had burned through their entire savings in just two years. An earlier study conducted by the nonprofit organization Family Reach, found that adult cancer patients are over two-and-a-half times more likely to file for bankruptcy than people of the same age without cancer.

Many feel that despite their often delicate physical and mental health, they are forced by their piling bills to continue working through treatment.

Health Complications at Work

Someone with the stomach flu might take a day off work to keep them sharp and performing at their absolute best.

Cancer patients rarely have such luxuries. In order to fend off mounting medical bills, many continue to show up at work despite the often rigorous physical demands of their therapy. According to the University of Colorado Cancer Canter, seven million out of 15 million cancer patients and survivors in the U.S. continue to work during and after their treatment.

In a new study of 872 cancer survivors aged 18-39, the Colorado Cancer Center found that 58% of respondents felt that their cancer or treatment interfered with physical aspects of their employment. A slightly lower 54% said it negatively impacted their ability to perform mental tasks required by their jobs. Patients undergoing chemotherapy, an aggressive form of anti-cancer therapy that often involves the administration of a powerful chemical cocktail, seem to be especially vulnerable to this treatment-linked mental impairment. The Pink Fund estimates that between 20% to 30% of women diagnosed with breast cancer will lose their jobs or will be unable to work due to negative health effects from their breast cancer therapy.

“Chemo brain,” a state of reduced mental acuity experienced by many undergoing chemotherapy, is a real threat to the job security of many people hoping to make enough money to stay alive. Others are more literally bedridden, as some cancer drugs can have powerful physical side effects on things like lungs or muscles. These individuals are often being forced to work through their pain because insurance won’t cover all their expenses.

Insurance is Little Safety Net

The Colorado Cancer Center study found that 14.4% of the 872 involved survivors had borrowed in excess of $10,000 to pay for their treatment. 1.5% said that they or their families had declared bankruptcy at some point during their illness.

Although insurance can provide some kind of safety net for these people, often it still leaves quite a bit of damage on the bill to be picked up by the patient. Anoushka Mirchandani, a young woman diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma in 2017, said she was lucky her insurance covered her treatment – after Mirchandani paid a $4,000 deductible. Mirchandani also had her eggs frozen, to ensure she could have children down the line. Her insurance again covered most of the expenses (80%), but Mirchandani would be alone on the hook for the $15,000 it would cost to unfreeze and retrieve the eggs.

The financial burden placed on top of these already highly-vulnerable individuals is astounding. Samantha Watson was diagnosed with bone cancer in her senior year of college – her first bone marrow transplant came with a nearly $300,000 price tag. She had to fight tooth and nail alongside her mother, an oncology nurse, to get the bill reduced.

The experience inspired her to create the SamFund, a nonprofit that hopes to provide financial assistance and online support to young adults living with cancer. To date, the SamFund has given out over $2 million in grants for a wide range of causes.

However, when cancer patients are receiving bills for $300,000 for a bone marrow transplant, $2 million doesn’t sound like all that much. The fact that these individuals are forced to work through their life-altering diagnosis, just to maintain even a cursory hope of living a normal life, is a national embarrassment. Our current GDP is just under $20 trillion. The fact that we have come to expect nonprofit organizations to pick up the brunt of the responsibility for treating our sickest citizens shows just how dire the situation has become for America’s chronically ill.

Do you think it’s right that cancer patients are essentially forced by the U.S. healthcare system to continue working, even when undergoing chemotherapy? Why or why not? Share your thoughts with Patient Worthy!

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