An average of 1.7 million people are diagnosed with cancer each year in the United States alone. Cancer is a widespread and unfair disease that touches many people and can take a terrible toll on a patient’s health, relationships, emotions, and finances.
The cost of cancer treatments can reach $150,000 or more, according to AARP, in part due to the high cost of prescriptions. In fact, 11 of the 12 cancer drugs that the Food and Drug Administration approved in 2012 were priced at more than $100,000 per year, according to a recent AARP article, which puts the cost of medications well out of the range of the average person.
Luckily, there are options available to help offset the cost of cancer treatments. If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with cancer, one of the most important things you can do is start researching costs and potential solutions sooner rather than later. Find the information you need to make a game plan. It will help ease some of the financial stress that goes along with a cancer diagnosis.
We want you to be well-equipped to fight back against cancer, which is why we’ve put together this guide on what to expect in terms of treatments and how to afford them. Use this information or share it with your loved ones to get the conversation going.
You can never be completely prepared for cancer – it impacts us all differently, but by referring to this guide, you can help diminish much of the financial anxiety and stress that goes hand in hand with fighting cancer.
Understanding Cancer Treatment
There’s a lot involved when it comes to treating cancer. It can all be a little overwhelming, especially if you don’t come from a medical background.
Here is a list of possible treatments and medical expenses:
- Lab tests: Blood, urine, or even a biopsy of a suspicious area.
- Healthcare provider visits: Consultations with medical experts, for treatment, or determining a diagnosis.
- Procedures for diagnosis or treatment: Room and equipment charges used to render treatment or determine a diagnosis.
- Imaging tests: X-rays, MRIs, CT scans. An MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) uses powerful magnets and radio waves to help find cancer. A CT (computed tomography) scan can help doctors locate tumors. These can all come with separate bills for equipment fees and medication used in the process.
- Radiation therapy: Can entail external radiation treatment and/or implants necessary for internal radiation. External radiation is one of the more common forms involving a machine that aims high-energy rays into the tumor. Internal radiation involves concentrating radiation within an area by using an implant sometimes referred to as a seed, capsule, or even balloon placed near the tumor.
- Drug costs: Can include inpatient and outpatient drugs including those used in chemotherapy treatments as well as drugs to offset side effects of chemo, radiation, etc. This may also entail drugs necessary for procedures as well as hormone therapy. In cases involving certain types of breast cancer, hormones in the blood can be affected requiring hormone therapy. Prescription and non-prescription drugs should also be factored in.
- Hospital stays: Includes the cost of doctor and nurse visits as well as specialist consultation. These can all contribute to the cost of cancer treatment.
- Surgery: Operating room and equipment fees, medications, anesthesiologist, pathologist, surgeon – these are all potential cost factors that can come into play, as well.
- Home care: Could include the cost of additional equipment as well as regular home visits from a medical professional. This can vary based on the severity of your cancer diagnosis and your reaction to the treatment.
- Follow-up care: May include blood tests, urinalysis, and any other procedure designed to detect traces of cancer after you have completed treatment.
Having a clear understanding of what cancer treatment might entail can help you hit the ground running. Just remember that cancer is unique to the patient and not all of these costs will apply.
Paying for Cancer Treatment
The collective cost of all those cancer treatments can vary. Generally, the number is high, but most hospitals don’t expect you to be walking around carrying that amount on hand.
If you have health insurance, you’ll want to make sure your provider pays or reimburses the bulk of cancer-related expenses. Knowing the specific terms of your policy and which doctors, hospitals, and clinics are in-network (recognized by your insurance provider) is crucial.
Be sure to keep careful records of everything pertaining to your treatment. No matter how insignificant a document may seem, make sure you have a copy and note the doctor’s signature as well as the date. This can come in handy in the event that your claims are denied and you want to appeal.
Your doctor or the clinic you’re interested in will have someone responsible for answering any health insurance concerns. Contact this individual to learn more about billing and if you require further assistance with your claims.
FSAs and HSAs
An HSA (Health Savings Account) is a special account people can use to save up for medical expenses. There are a lot of employers that provide these to employees enrolled in private health insurance plans.
FSAs (Flexible Spending Accounts) operate in the same manner as HSAs. Both, perhaps most importantly, give you the time to prepare for medical expenses. There are, however, some key differences.
In the case of HSAs, these can only be used with high-deductible health insurance plans. That means you’ll have to pay a decent amount out-of-pocket before your insurance policy will cover the rest. The plus side is that the funds you put into an HSA do not expire and can be taken with you to another job. Furthermore, any funds you contribute to your HSA are tax deductible.
The money you set aside for an FSA must be spent before the end of the year, or the funds will be lost. However, the good news is that contributing to your FSA will reduce your taxable wages since it’s being funded with pretax money.
Whether you’re going with an HSA or an FSA, be sure to keep documentation of all of your expenses so you can be paid back.
For some people, health insurance might not be an option.
Perhaps you enrolled in health insurance after learning you had cancer. Some providers won’t cover what they deem to be a pre-existing condition — even if your diagnosis was only a few days prior to being approved for insurance.
For these situations, there are other options to finance your cancer treatments.
It is possible to help diminish the high cost of cancer treatments with the help of a personal loan. By consolidating your medical debt into a personal loan, you can avoid paying the total sum immediately and can break it down into more manageable payments instead. Most lenders will allow you to pay back your loan in monthly installments over the span of a few years.
Most personal loans range from 12 to 60 months, and come with an average APR of between 10% to 28%.
Personal loans are a good option for people who know exactly how much they need to borrow. You will be charged interest on a personal loan, but those monthly payments, even with interest, may still be more affordable than coming up with a large sum of money all at once.
When thinking about a personal loan for cancer treatments, you’ll want to take your credit rating into account. This will determine your loan payment estimate and is crucial to helping you plan financially without going bankrupt.
The good news is that unsecured personal loans are not generally tied to any assets. Whereas you might have to put up your home as collateral for a home loan, this does not apply with an unsecured personal loan.
Just be on the lookout when it comes to some lenders. A few might charge an origination fee which is an upfront fee charged by the lender for processing your loan application. If your credit score is too low, this can also limit your loan options.
Check Your Personal Loan Rates
Answer a few questions to see which personal loans you pre-qualify for. The process is quick and easy, and it will not impact your credit score.
What if I Can’t Pay?
Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with cancer treatment expenses and the costs of everyday life. What some people don’t realize, however, is that there are quite a few hospitals and agencies willing to work with you.
- Meet face-to-face with someone in your clinic or hospital who can assist you. In most cases, hospitals and agencies are more than willing to work something out.
- If you have health insurance but are having trouble with the out-of-pocket expenses, tell your hospital. See if they are willing to work out a payment delay or extension.
- If you do not have insurance, discuss options with your doctor including whether they can cut you a discount comparable to Medicare so you can pay your bills.
- Consulting with a financial counselor can also help you find agencies and other resources that might be able to help you pay for your medical care.
- Network to find other ways to help cover the costs. Many local churches and cancer support groups will host fundraisers or they may be able to connect you with other resources specific to your community.
Questions to Ask
Even with all of this information, you might still have questions when it comes to your personal loan, insurance provider, or even the hospital where you’ll be seeking treatment. Consider these questions to help you on your way to making an informed decision.
Questions for the insurance provider
- What will the cost difference be if I go with an out-of-network specialist? It’s important to minimize cost, but if there’s a doctor out-of-network you want to consider, you should ask.
- What costs will be covered and what do the co-pays look like? All important information for helping to ensure you can afford further treatment down the road.
- What is the payment process? How will I be reimbursed? You’ll want to know how much you’re paying out-of-pocket as well as how (and when) you’ll be paid back by your provider.
- Will the costs be covered if I take part in a clinical trial? If you’re considering an alternative treatment or one part of a clinical trial, you’ll need to double-check to make sure it’s covered.
- Are overnight stays at the hospital (for treatment) covered? If your treatment excludes the outpatient clinic option, you’ll want to make sure hospital expenses are taken into account.
- Are medications covered, and if so, which ones? You’ll want to try and defray the cost of pharmaceuticals during your treatment, which can be extremely costly if you have to pay for them out-of-pocket.
- What is my out-of-pocket maximum? The out-of-pocket maximum is the highest amount you’ll be required to pay before your insurance kicks in fully to cover the costs.
Questions for the Hospital
- What are my treatment options? This is an important question because it can give you a better idea of the scope of the treatment so you can adjust financially.
- Will this treatment eliminate the cancer? Will it just make me comfortable? Both? For your own peace of mind and so you can plan accordingly.
- Who are the members of my cancer team and what are their jobs? Get as much information as you can on the process so you aren’t feeling too overwhelmed down the road.
- Will I need to stay in a hospital or can this be handled in an outpatient clinic? Good to know just how much these treatments will impact your everyday life.
- What are the side effects and how will they be treated? You don’t want to get blindsided by unforeseen side effects on top of dealing with cancer. Best to find out ahead of time.
- How often will I need to receive treatment? It’s important to know the schedule in which you’ll receive treatments so you can plan accordingly for things like childcare, work schedule changes and so on.
- How long will I be in treatment? Try to get an idea of how long you’ll be undergoing treatment so you can try to determine costs and arrange for long-term care if needed.
Questions for the Bank
- What kind of personal loan can I get? This will include information on the interest rates as well as projected monthly payment.
- What medical expenses can I use a loan on? Generally, this shouldn’t be an issue, but there might be some stipulations depending on factors specific to your lender. It never hurts to ask.
- How will this loan impact my credit score? Since we’re talking about paying for cancer treatment, you’ll want to know these financial details, as well.
- Will there be an application fee? Another potential cost you may need to factor into the equation.
- What is the repayment period? Knowing how long you have to pay the loan back is invaluable information for your financial planning.
- Is there a penalty for paying my loan off early? Some lenders may charge additional fees for paying off a loan in advance, so make sure to ask about that policy.
Don’t Give Up. Don’t Panic.
There will be many times either you or your loved ones will feel overwhelmed by the disease. It takes a massive toll on almost every aspect of life including, most prominently, your finances.
However, that does not mean cancer is unbeatable. The best thing you can do is start talking about how to prepare financially sooner rather than later. And remember that there are still options open to you in the event you’re caught by surprise.
It cannot be stressed enough how important communication is when dealing with the costs. Always remember to discuss the financial strain of cancer treatments, even if you’re telling it to the hospital that treated you. Many of these agencies and organizations are willing to work with you regardless of how steep the cost may seem.
Don’t give up. Don’t panic.
Agencies and Organizations that Can Help:
- Cancer Financial Assistance Coalition
- CancerCare Co-Payment Assistance Foundation
- Good Days
- HealthWell Foundation
- Hill-Burton Free and Reduced-Cost Health Care
- The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Co-Pay Assistance Program
- National Organization for Rare Disorders
- Patient Access Network Foundation
- Patient Advocate Foundation Co-Pay Relief Program
- Patient Services Incorporated
Special thanks to:
Laura Umbrell, Oncology Navigator at Summit Health
Ken Majkowski, Pharm.D and Chief Pharmacy Officer at FamilyWize
VJ Sleight, MA, Health Educator and Trainer Specializing in the Prevention and Treatment of Tobacco Dependence at Stop Smoking, Stay Quit