Arlene Perez

Arlene Perez

A cancer diagnosis is difficult news to receive for any patient. But for many, it’s financially toxic news as well.

A study published in the American Journal of Medicine last year concluded that about 42% of newly diagnosed cancer patients will deplete their life savings within two years of their diagnosis to pay for their treatments. Increasingly, researchers are studying the emotional and mental toll that the costs associated with cancer take on patients, in addition to the actual cancer diagnosis itself.

Arlene Perez has experienced this challenge firsthand. Perez, of Victoria, has driven to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center every three months for the past three years after doctors found a Stage 1 cancerous gastrointestinal stromal tumor on her small intestine. Since her very first surgery in 2016, Perez has continued traveling to MD Anderson in Houston for blood work and CT scans to make sure the disease hasn’t returned. In 2017, doctors found a second nodule, which doctors are continuing to monitor to make sure it doesn’t grow.

“All of these visits cost an outrageous amount of money, even with insurance,” Perez said. Plus, every day spent traveling to Houston is a day she can’t work.

Perez, a teacher with the Victoria Independent School District, is among the growing number of cancer patients and survivors stuck with mounting medical bills in addition to the emotionally and physically draining reality of a cancer diagnosis. The 50-year-old estimates she has thousands in outstanding debt for her medical care. Perez decided to ask for help through a crowdfunding website, but even with that help from family and friends, Perez is still working to pay all her bills.

A growing body of research shows that even for Americans with insurance such as Perez, the bills for cancer patients remain steep and out of reach for many.

A recent study published by the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention found that more than half of the 16.9 million cancer survivors in the U.S. either have trouble paying their bills or worry about the prospect of paying them. A quarter of survivors said they had trouble paying their bills, and 33% of survivors said they worried about their medical bills, according to the study.

The problem is only expected to get worse as the U.S. population continues to grow and methods of cancer detection and treatment improve, according to research from Robin Yabroff, an epidemiologist and researcher with the American Cancer Society. The steep financial burden of a cancer diagnosis comes from both the direct medical costs of paying for health care, plus indirect costs, such as money a patient loses when they’re not working and expenses such as traveling to hospitals and paying for overnight hotel stays. These factors mean that even though the cancer mortality rate declined between 1991 and 2015, the amount of money spent on cancer care is actually increasing.

Perez said she’s hopeful she and her husband will eventually pay off all of their bills, but right now they’re not sure what the future holds.

Ciara McCarthy covers local government for the Victoria Advocate as a Report for America corps member. You can reach her at cmccarthy@vicad.com or at 580-6597 or on Twitter at @mccarthy_ciara.

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Health Reporter

Ciara McCarthy covers local government for the Advocate as a Report for America corps member. You can contact her by emailing cmccarthy@vicad.com.

(2) comments

Linda Schuenemann

Having just been diagnosed, I am really intimidated by this! My husband and I have a small savings and we are already envisioning that being gone in less than two months! And having no physical support ! It almost makes me want to give up!

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Ciara McCarthy Staff
Ciara McCarthy

Hi Todd, Thanks for reading. Here's a good summary quote from the results of one of Yabroff's studies: "Projections of current trends in incidence (declining) and survival (increasing) had small effects on 2020 estimates. However, if costs of care increase annually by 2% in the initial and last year of life phases of care, the total cost in 2020 is projected to be $173 billion, which represents a 39% increase from 2010." https://academic.oup.com/jnci/article/103/2/117/2568866 As that quote notes, survival rates for cancer patients is increasing, which is mainly due to better detection methods and better preventative care. Let me know if you have other questions!

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