As cancer treatments advance, so do costs

June 6, 2011

Scott Hensley

Justin Sullivan
A breast cancer patient receives an experimental cancer treatment at the University of California, San Francisco, in 2005.

At a big cancer meeting in Chicago right now there's a lot of talk about progress in cancer treatment, including experimental new drugs for skin cancer and lung cancer.

More and more often the medicines being developed to treat cancer act narrowly — on very specific types of cancer linked to specific genetic mutations. The drugs tend to be of most help to a relatively small group of patients, and that combination means prices for the treatments can be very high.

So it seems fitting that the steep cost of cancer care is also getting a look at the American Society of Clinical Oncology conference. And some of the findings are pretty sobering.

Take, for instance, a look at the financial prognosis for cancer patients in the state of Washington. Researchers linked databases on newly diagnosed cancer and court records to figure out the risk of bankruptcy for cancer patients. Among the more than 230,000 people in the cancer database, they found that about 4,800 had filed for bankruptcy during a follow-up period that averaged a little more than four years.

Overall, the bankruptcy rate was 2.1 percent for the cancer patients. But the risk of bankruptcy varied by cancer and was highest for those with malignancies of the lung, thyroid, and also leukemia and lymphoma. The risk of bankruptcy was much lower for people age 65 and up, who would be eligible for Medicare.

Costs of cancer care in the U.S. hit $124.6 billion in 2010 and are expected to surpass $158 billion in 2020, the National Cancer Institute found in an analysis earlier this year. Check NCI's site here for the costs of care for specific cancers.

Even people with health insurance struggle with the bills. A study from Duke and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute found that out-of-pocket drug copayments and other costs of care not picked up by insurance caused patients to scrimp.

To cope with those costs, more than half the people spent less on food and clothing. Nearly half used all or part of their savings, and almost one-third didn't fill prescriptions. "People still couldn't afford groceries and were spending life savings on cancer care," Duke's Dr. Yousuf Zafar told Reuters.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio.