Asia Carter survived breast cancer, but her troubles are far from over—she recently filed bankruptcy.
When Carter was first diagnosed with stage III breast cancer in 2016, she was working as a contractor and didn’t have health insurance. It wasn’t until 2017 that she got insurance, and it was expensive: $653 a month. Out-of-pocket expenses added up quickly with MRIs, EKGs, a double mastectomy, surgery to remove lymph nodes, and two reconstructive surgeries. “I spent at least $10,000,” says Carter, a single mother from Frisco, Texas.
“It’s been an uphill battle that I’m still climbing,” she says. Unfortunately, stories like Carter’s are all too common.
“Few people are aware of the financial toll the disease can take. It’s a one-two punch,” says Scott Petinga, a cancer survivor and founder of the Center for Advocacy for Cancer of the Testes International. “Having to go through treatment will cause a loss of work and inertly a loss of income—and at the same time, medical and pharmaceutical costs, not covered by insurance, are due.”
When high deductibles, co-pays, and a loss of income collide, the financial dominoes fall, leaving tens of thousands of Americans resorting to medical bankruptcy.
A study conducted by researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found the financial toxicity resulting from the high cost of cancer care is almost as deadly as cancer itself. According to the National Cancer Institute, anywhere from one-third to over three-quarters of cancer survivors exhaust their savings to finance medical expenses, which can cost tens of thousands per month.
“Cancer costs the U.S. economy more than $216 billion annually in direct treatment costs and lost productivity, a number that will increase dramatically as incidence rates climb,” says Susan Brown, the senior director of education and patient support, at Susan G. Komen.
When high deductibles, co-pays, and a loss of income collide, the financial dominoes fall, leaving tens of thousands of Americans resorting to medical bankruptcy. “A Harvard study estimated that 62.1 percent of all bankruptcies were because of medical bills, and this was before the Affordable Care Act was in full force,” says Molly MacDonald, a breast cancer survivor and founder and executive director of The Pink Fund, a breast cancer charity and nonprofit, financial assistance fund that provides cost-of-living expenses to breast cancer patients.
She adds that it’s important to note that most medical bankruptcies result from hospitalizations in addition to outpatient treatment and costly prescription drugs. “A patient may have a very high deductible with their health insurance, which may require them to start a GoFundMe or similar program, deplete their savings, ask relatives for financial help, sell an asset, dip into retirement savings, and max out credit cards […] and that is just to begin treatment,” says MacDonald.
Cancer may be a formidable opponent, but what might take you by surprise is the impact it can have on money matters. Keep your guard up to protect your financial future. When you win your battle with cancer, the last thing you need is a fight to fix your finances.
Many employers offer services to help their employees navigate clinical care—and also navigate the bills that follow complex cancer therapy. Talk to your human resources department. And although it may not be pleasant, talk to your creditors. Some mortgage companies, for example, are now expanding their payment-deferment programs to include those facing costly health challenges.