Many people believe that having health insurance will protect them from financial ruin in the event of a cancer diagnosis. But a recent study suggests that’s not necessarily the case.

The study, published May 10 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, surveyed 555 patients in Washington State who had been diagnosed with stage III colorectal cancer between 2008 and 2010. Of the 284 patients who responded, nearly all were insured. Nevertheless, a whopping 38 percent reported instances of extreme financial hardship: selling or refinancing their homes, experiencing a greater than 20 percent drop in income, borrowing money from friends and family, or going into debt to finance their care.

Get Help: Financial Tips, Assistance and Resources

HealthWell Foundation
Helps patients pay prescription drug co-payments, deductibles, and health insurance premiums: 1-800-675-8416

Patient Access Network Foundation
Provides assistance to underinsured patients who need help paying for potentially life-saving medications: 1-866-316-7263

Patient Advocate Foundation Co-Pay Relief Program
Offers financial support that can cover pharmaceutical co-payments of insured patients, including Medicare Part D beneficiaries, who meet certain financial and medical qualifications: 1-866-512-3861

Patient Services Incorporated
Provides financial assistance to patients with chronic diseases who can’t afford their treatment: 1-800-366-7741

It’s not only colorectal cancer patients who can suffer financial consequences, according to Cathy Bradley, the chair of the Healthcare Policy and Research Department at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

“This is happening across the board, in breast cancer patients, leukemia patients, and [even] more so in cancers that are associated with more expensive drug regimens,” says Bradley, who points out that it isn’t unusual for the cost of a typical eight-week chemotherapy regimen to exceed $30,000. And that’s often just the beginning. “Your typical breast cancer survivor, for example, is going to be on an anti-estrogen drug for years … and have years of doctor visits and tests, some of which may not be covered.”

Part of the problem, says Bradley, is that as new drugs and tests cause treatment costs to skyrocket, insurers are passing more and more of these costs on to patients in the form of higher co-payments and lower insurance caps. “Most people aren’t even aware that there is a cap on their insurance payouts until they hit it,” says Bradley. “Do you know what yours is? I don’t.”

These costs are turning many patients into paupers. Veena Shankaran, a medical oncologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle who led the study conducted in Washington State, notes that a 2006 study found that 25 percent of 930 cancer patients surveyed said they depleted their savings to pay for treatment, and 11 percent reported an inability to pay for basic necessities, such as food, heat or housing, owing to cancer treatment costs.

What can be done? It’s crucial that patients talk to their doctors about finances, says Shankaran, who points out that, in many cases, sparing a patient’s savings doesn’t mean compromising care. For example, she says, many colorectal cancer patients are prescribed Xeloda (capecitabine), an expensive oral chemotherapy drug, yet a traditional intravenous course of 5-fluorouracil is cheaper and as effective. “There are a lot of resources providers can offer,” says Shankaran. “But first they have to know a patient needs help.”