Cancer treatment can be expensive, and even patients with good medical insurance can face a large financial burden. Factors like missing work and traveling to receive treatment can add to this burden and the stress that comes with it. Although help often is available for patients who face financial stress, many do not know whom to ask or where to look.
“Financial stress decreases patients’ quality of life and can make it difficult for them to adhere to treatment,” said Grace Smith, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., an assistant professor in the Departments of Radiation Oncology and Health Services Research at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. “Some studies suggest that up to half of cancer patients have financial stress with their treatment.”
Dr. Smith said that treatment-related financial stress is sometimes referred to as “financial toxicity” because it can be as disruptive as the physical toxic effects—such as nausea and hair loss—of some cancer treatments. Thus, cancer patients need information and resources to help deal with their financial stress.
Starting the conversation
Although doctors, nurses, and other cancer care specialists can help patients deal with financial stress, many patients find it difficult to discuss finances with their care team. However, this discussion is an important one to have.
“Research shows that most cancer patients want to talk to their care team about treatment costs, but few actually do,” Dr. Smith said. She noted that patients may be too overwhelmed with new information about their disease and treatment options to do so. She suggested that patients write down their questions—including those about prescription costs, missed work, and travel and lodging—before their appointment and bring a friend or caregiver to the appointment to help ask questions and take notes.
“It’s important that patients know they can discuss their concerns with a variety of members of their care team,” Dr. Smith said. This team includes not only doctors and nurses but also the hospital’s pharmacists, social workers, chaplains, patient advocates, and business office personnel. These experts often can help patients directly or point patients to agencies that can help.
Where to get help
Sources of financial assistance may include nonprofit groups, pharmaceutical companies, professional organizations, and government agencies.
Nonprofit groups can provide information, assistance, and support directly to patients. The American Cancer Society, for example, has a help line (800-227-2345) for cancer-related questions, including questions about financial issues. Also, the organization’s website has tips for navigating health insurance and other financial concerns. And the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society offers co-pay and travel assistance programs to patients with these cancers.
Other nonprofit groups help patients deal with the cost of medicine. The Patient Assistance Program Center and the Partnership for Prescription Assistance match patients who cannot afford medicine with pharmaceutical companies’ patient assistance programs.
Patients can also look to some oncology professional organizations for helpful information. For example, the American Society of Clinical Oncology offers a detailed pamphlet about dealing with the financial burden of cancer care.
In addition, patients can contact the federal government to see if they qualify for benefits that could help cover costs related to their care. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (800-633-4227), Social Security Administration (800-772-1213), and Department of Health & Human Services (800-677-1116) are good places to start.
Cancer support groups—especially those that offer peer mentoring, like MD Anderson’s myCancerConnection—can also provide information about financial assistance. Peer mentors are cancer survivors who offer patients support and can often direct them toward financial assistance resources.
Finally, patients who may miss time from work should talk to their employers about their leave benefits and whether a flexible schedule or telecommuting is an option during treatment. Patients should also contact their insurance companies with questions about coverage. Some insurance plans will cover items such as nutritional supplements and medical supplies if those items are prescribed as part of cancer treatment.
Cancer patients can seek out a variety of resources to help relieve the financial stress that accompanies cancer treatment. “The most important thing cancer patients who have financial stress should know is that they are not alone,” Dr. Smith said.
For more information, ask your physician, visit www.mdanderson.org, or call askMDAnderson at 877-632-6789.
OncoLog, October 2017, Volume 62, Issue 10