The Cost of Cancer
Expensive treatments can leave patients with a mountain of debt. Resources are available to help.
By Bara Vaida
Photo Robyn Mackenzie / iStock / Thinkstock
In July 2013, Cynthia Gathers made an appointment with a general surgeon to evaluate bumps that looked like pimples on her left cheek and shoulder. The McKenney, Virginia, resident had already been treated unsuccessfully by her primary care doctor and a dermatologist, and she wanted the bumps removed quickly before an August vacation to visit her family.
“My surgeon thought the pimples were cysts but sent them off for a biopsy anyway,” says Gathers, an associate minister at a Baptist church who also works for the Department of Social Services of Dinwiddie County, south of Richmond. “A few days later, he called me to tell me that the bumps were actually cancer and that I needed to see an oncologist right away.”
Gathers was diagnosed with stage IV non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a form of cancer that starts in immune cells called lymphocytes. For a month, Gathers received radiation treatments on her cheek and behind her ear, but new bumps formed on her chin. Her oncologist suggested she enroll in a clinical trial for Adcetris (brentuximab vedotin), a treatment delivered intravenously. The therapy put her cancer into remission but left her with extreme neuropathy—numbness, tingling and pain caused by nerve damage. During treatment she could barely walk without a cane and missed work because she was so sick. And while Gathers had health insurance through her employer, her coverage had a $4,000 deductible and copays for prescription drugs that added up to more than $1,800 a year. Facing a mortgage, utility bills, transportation costs and missed work for which she wasn’t paid, in May 2014, less than a year after her diagnosis, Gathers was $29,000 in debt.
“When you are sick in bed, the last thing you are thinking about is how to pay the bills,” says Gathers, who is 51 and lives alone with her cat, Deuce. Because she wasn’t sure what her health insurance covered and was having trouble keeping up with expenses, debt started piling up. Later, she learned she had incorrectly assumed responsibility for a $6,000 bone marrow biopsy because the bill was sent mistakenly to her instead of to her insurer. Debt collection agencies began to call. At the end of July 2014, Gathers filed for bankruptcy.
“I cried and cried, but then I just felt relief because the harassing phone calls and letters finally stopped,” says Gathers, who is undergoing chemotherapy again after a return of her lymphoma in January 2015. “I didn’t want to ruin my credit, but I had no choice.”
Cancer: An Expensive Undertaking
Gathers is one of more than 1.6 million Americans diagnosed annually with cancer, many of whom face not only the distress of a diagnosis, but a dizzying array of bills and crippling financial hardship. While treatment costs vary depending on the type of cancer, some therapies approved recently by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) come with a big price tag. For example, an immunotherapy drug used to treat a rare form of leukemia costs at least $64,000 per infusion and requires two courses of treatment. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) estimated that for those 65 and older, the cost of the first year of leukemia treatment averaged $33,167 for women and $36,036 for men in 2010, the most recent year for which data are available. Overall, the annual cost of cancer care to the U.S. economy was nearly $125 billion in 2010, and that figure could grow as much as 66 percent, to nearly $207 billion, by 2020, according to the NCI.