40% of breast cancer patients struggle to afford treatment

Nearly 40 percent of women find their breast cancer treatment unaffordable, according to a large-scale study published in Cancer this month—but radiation oncologists are better than some at communicating financial difficulties to their patients.

“We have made a lot of progress in breast cancer treatment, which is wonderful,” first author Reshma Jagsi, MD, DPhil, said in a release from Michigan Medicine. “But this study shows we are only part of the way to our goal. We must now turn our efforts to confronting the financial devastation many face.”

Jagsi, who serves as deputy chair and a professor of radiation oncology at Michigan Medicine, and her team at the University of Michigan surveyed around 2,500 patients treated for early stage breast cancer in an effort to gauge the affordability—and stress—of treatment. Around 850 radiation oncologists, medical oncologists and treating surgeons were also interviewed.

According to results from those surveys, 38 percent of women were “at least somewhat worried” about their financial status because of their treatment, and 14 percent said they lost more than 10 percent of their household income as a result. Seventeen percent of women spent more than 10 percent of their income on out-of-pocket expenses, and some of those realities were compounded by low socioeconomic conditions and already-established debt.

Physicians weren’t oblivious to those hardships, Jagsi et al. said. In fact, half of all medical oncologists said someone in their practice often or always discusses financial burdens with patients. While 43 percent of radiation oncologists said the same, just 16 percent of surgeons did.

Jagsi said that of patients concerned about money, 73 percent said their doctor’s office didn’t help them, suggesting a need for improved communication within hospital systems.

“To cure a patient’s disease at the cost of financial ruin falls short of our duty as physicians to serve,” she said. “It’s simply not acceptable to ignore patients’ financial distress any longer.”