In addition to the physical and emotional toll of cancer, patients must also consider the financial impacts of the disease. According to AARP The Magazine, the total cost of cancer treatment on average is $150,000. However, this number may be much greater or smaller depending on the patient’s cancer, treatments, insurance, and resources.
Navigating the costs of cancer on top of the disease itself may seem overwhelming. If you are dealing with a cancer diagnosis, you may prefer to ask a friend or family member to make decisions regarding the financial side of your treatment.
If you do want to navigate the costs of your treatment yourself, step one is cultivating an understanding of the financial aspects of cancer.
Unfortunately, there is no price tag on cancer. Patients can spend anywhere from $1,000 to $20,000 annually on their treatment. According to the American Cancer Society, cancer patients paid $4 billion out of their own pockets for their treatment—but that does not indicate how many people paid or how much they paid individually.
Whether it’s paid for out of pocket, through insurance, or, most likely, through a combination of the two, cancer is usually expensive. That’s because it’s a complex disease that affects the body on a cellular level. Effective treatment that does not impact the surrounding cells requires equally complex treatments, like radiation, over long periods of time.
These treatments, as well as a range of side effects, can add up to a substantial price tag. The cost of cancer depends on a number of different factors.
Some studies show that patients who cannot afford treatment are afraid to speak with their doctors about cost. They fear their inability to pay will affect their doctor’s willingness to treat them. However, it is integral to discuss your financial concerns with your cancer care team. They need to understand your position so they can offer the best treatment for your situation. They may also be able to help you find and utilize financial resources for your treatment.
There are also a rising number of resources for cancer patients. We will discuss these below.
Factors Affecting the Cost of Cancer
No two cancers are exactly alike, and neither are their costs. The financial impact of your cancer depends on a number of different elements, including:
The type and stage of your cancer
The type and frequency of treatment and the goals of that treatment
The location of your treatment, including its proximity to your home
The coverage offered by your health insurance
Your use of supplemental insurance
Your use of financial assistance resources
Understanding the Costs of Cancer Treatment & Care
It’s likely that you associate the cost of cancer with treatment. While treatment does contribute significantly to the cost of cancer, there are many other factors that affect the financial aspects of the disease.
Doctor visits: Throughout the course of your treatment, you will visit your doctor for check-ups to review the progress of your treatment. If you are insured, your insurance will likely require you to pay a copay for each visit. There may also be additional costs for lab tests like blood or urine tests.
Clinic visits and treatment: When you visit the clinic for treatment, such as radiation, there may also be a copay or deductible to consider. Even those who seek treatment through a clinical trial may have to pay for aspects of treatment.
Procedures: If your treatment plan includes a procedure, such as a surgery, it may entail costs. These could include room and equipment charges, payments for different doctors, etcetera. Surgery, for example, could also include costs for the surgeon, anesthesiologist, and pathologist, as well as operating room and equipment fees.
Imaging tests: Your doctor will want to visualize your cancer through imaging tests such as x-rays, CT scans, and MRIs. These tests may include additional costs like radiologist fees, equipment, and medicines.
Medication: There will likely be medications involved in your treatment, such as chemotherapy. There may also be medications for treating your side effects, such as medication for nausea. These medications may be given at different times during your treatment: inpatient, outpatient, prescription, over the counter, or in relation to a procedure.
Hospital stays: Whether as a result of a procedure or an emergency visit, you may have to stay at the hospital during treatment. This can give rise to costs for many of the above factors, as well as doctor or nurse care and insight from specialists.
Home care: Depending on your cancer and treatment, you may require care while you’re at home. If so, that could include the cost of the careperson, as well as expenses for equipment, drugs, or specialist nurse visits.
Specialist visits: Your cancer care team may refer you to specialists to aid in your treatment or recovery. These specialists could include physical therapists, speech therapists, or other experts. Specialist visits may or may not be covered by insurance.
Counseling: Cancer is an emotional burden, and many patients seek counseling to help navigate their diagnosis and treatment. Visits to most counselors include a copay.
Transportation and travel: Although the cost of transportation may seem trivial compared to treatment, these expenses can add up quickly, especially if you seek treatment away from your city. These costs could include gas, tolls, parking, taxis or rideshare services, bus, train, or airplane fares, and lodging.
Lost wages: Depending on the extent and treatment of your cancer, you may or may not be able to continue working. If you have to reduce your hours or quit work entirely, you will lose that income. That can have serious financial repercussions on many patients.
Family and house care: If you are unable to care for your family or home, you may have to account for additional expenses to do so. For example, you may have to pay for child care or a maid service for the chores or care you would usually provide yourself.
Specialist visits: Even if your cancer is cured, you will need to continue to seek specialized medical care. You and your care team will want to do everything possible to ensure your cancer doesn’t return, and doing so means regular check-ins with specialists.
Lost wages: Some cancer patients are unable to return to work full time after treatment. This can be the result of side-effects, such as fatigue, ambulatory difficulties, or many other symptoms. In this case, you will need to account for the loss of those wages over time.
Long-term care: The side effects mentioned above may also make it difficult to complete daily tasks without assistance. If so, the costs of in-home, long-term healthcare can greatly impact your budget.
How to Pay for Cancer
Most treatment centers and hospitals have a financial department for managing patients’ costs and payments. If you have questions regarding the cost of your cancer and how to pay for it, these financial departments are a resource that may be able to help find answers.
While cancer is expensive, there are many options for paying for treatment and other ancillary costs. Understanding what these costs are and your options for paying them can help you move forward confidently with treatment.
Navigating Insurance for Cancer Treatment & Care
It may be possible to have the majority of your expenses for cancer treatment and care covered by insurance. It’s important to communicate frequently with your insurance company and to ask questions about treatments, doctors, and anything else that may come up.
In order to make the most of your insurance, be sure to:
Maintain your coverage. Do not miss a payment or let your coverage lapse.
Understand your coverage. Become familiar with your policy so that you know what is or is not covered.
Know your policy’s preferred or network doctors, hospitals, or clinics. Try to schedule all treatments and appointments within the network if possible.
Call your insurance company to ensure planned medical treatments and procedures do not require prior authorization.
Keep track of your medical bills and develop an organizational system for filing them.
Submit medical bills for reimbursement as soon as you receive them.
Develop a system for filing any paperwork related to your claims. This could include explanations of benefits (EOBs), bills, receipts, letters of medical necessity, sick or family medical leave (FMLA) requests, travel and prescriptions expenses, and any correspondence with your insurance company.
Dealing with insurance during cancer treatment can be a time-consuming task. If possible, recruit a friend or family member to help. A social worker, caseworker, hospital financial counselor, or support agency—like the American Cancer Society or local government agencies—may be able to help, as well.
For those who are uninsured or underinsured, or even if you’re insured but facing greater out-of-pocket expenses than you anticipated, there is help for you. There are national and local organizations that can help with all aspects of your cancer treatment and care, including travel, medication, housing, and more.
National Financial Assistance Organizations
The following organizations are dedicated to helping make cancer care and treatment affordable for all patients.
In addition to national relief organizations, there are many local groups that may be able to help you navigate the cost of cancer, including:
Your local Department of Social Services
Religious groups, including churches, mosques, and synagogues
Local lodges and charitable groups
Your local United Way
Ask your cancer care team for other local recommendations.
Questions to Ask About the Cost of Your Cancer
Managing the many different aspects of your cancer, especially cost, may feel like a lot to handle. It’s important to remember that there is a team of medical professionals and others standing by your side who are your greatest advocates.
Please consider the team at SERO as a resource for any of your cancer-related questions, including about cost.
Questions to Ask at Your Doctor’s Office
Who can help provide me with an estimate of my entire treatment plan cost?
Are there any treatments that cost less? Are they less effective?
How much is my copay for each visit/treatment?
When is my copay due?
Do you have a payment plan available?
Are my lab tests covered by insurance? How much do they cost out of pocket?
How can we adapt my treatment plan around my work schedule?
Can you prescribe medications that are on my insurance plan’s preferred list?
Is there a generic version of this prescription available?
Questions to Ask Your Insurance Company
Does my plan cover lab tests?
What is my co-pay on specialist visits?
How much will my insurance cover for each of my treatments?
Does my insurance cover doctor’s visits for a second opinion?
Does my insurance company need to approve my treatments before I begin?
Is my doctor’s office/treatment center in my network?
What is covered under my insurance policy if I have to visit the hospital?