High Cost of Cancer Treatment

Life-saving surgeries and the latest therapies are extending the lives of cancer patients — but only those who can afford them.

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As cancer survival rates rise, so do the price tags of life-saving treatments. Monthly drugs costs may reach $100,000, causing many Americans to struggle with the physical and emotional effects of high out-of-pocket medical costs. Even worse, others are completely priced out of the hope for a cure.

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According to a 2019 survey conducted by The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com, 63% of cancer patients and loved ones reported financial struggles following a cancer diagnosis.

Source: The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com, 2019

Low-income families, Americans who are uninsured or underinsured, and blue-collar workers who face medical bills more than four times their annual salaries cannot afford the rising costs of cancer treatments.

US Cancer Epidemic at a Glance

Missy Miller, patient advocate for the Mesothelioma Center
Missy Miller Medical Outreach Director at The Mesothelioma Center

“People often only think up to surgery, but post-operative care is where the higher costs are. Dealing with complications and covering costs of scans, home care and follow-up treatments such as chemotherapy is when it gets really expensive.”

Justice scales weighing the average cost of cancer treatment.

In the fourth fiscal quarter of 2018, the weekly median income for a full-time wage or salary worker was $900, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even with a typical employer-sponsored health insurance plan, a patient with 25% coinsurance would have monthly out-of-pocket costs of $2,500 for a cancer drug that costs $10,000 each month. That’s nearly 70% of the average American’s monthly income.

Lifetime Health Care Costs for Prevalent and Preventable Cancers

Treatment costs are highest among preventable cancers, including lung cancer, colorectal cancer, breast cancer and mesothelioma. Research shows most cancers are preventable. The lifestyle choices we make, the foods we eat, and our physical activity levels impact our cancer risk.

Bar graph showing the estimated lifetime spend of cancer care

Estimated Yearly Out-of-Pocket Spending

Nearly 20% of cancer patients and their loved ones surveyed by The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com estimated that they spent more than $20,000 each year in total out-of-pocket costs.

Estimated out-of-pocket costs for cancer

Cancer Expenses That Hurt Financial Situation

Treatments themselves are not the only factor in cancer costs. Nearly 50% of cancer patients surveyed said travel expenses related to treatment hurt their financial situation.

Expenses related to treatment
Money decreasing

Hidden Costs of Cancer

In 2015, cancer cost Americans aged 16 to 84 a total of $94 billion in lost earnings.

Source: JAMA Oncology, July 2019

Hardships Experienced Because of Out-of-Pocket Costs

Forty percent of cancer patients surveyed had difficulties paying medical bills, while 12% lowered the dose of prescription drugs to make them last longer.

Cancer costs that hurt patient finances the most

Five Facts About Cancer Costs

How Do Other Conditions Stack Up in Price?

At an average total of $150,000, cancer treatment costs are more than four times higher than treatment for other common health conditions.

Average treatment costs for noncancerous conditions

Most Expensive Cancer Drugs

Four of the five most expensive cancer drugs on the U.S. market are types of immunotherapies, according to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s Drug Pricing Lab.

Several of these drugs cost nearly as much or more per month than the average American makes in a year, which is $46,800, according to the latest data available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Monthly cost of the most expensive cancer drugs
Fast Fact

Despite the high price tag and rising promise of immunotherapy, the drugs don’t work for most patients. A 2019 study published in JAMA Network shows only 13% of patients who receive checkpoint inhibitors, such as Yervoy, actually benefit from the much-heralded treatment.

Common and Costly Chemotherapy Drugs

Chemotherapy is one of the most common cancer treatments. Depending on the drug and type of cancer it treats, the average monthly cost of chemo drugs can range from $1,000 to $12,000.

If a cancer patient requires four chemo sessions a year, it could cost them up to $48,000 total, which is beyond the average annual income. Even after premiums and deductibles of health insurance are met, this person could be responsible for more than $10,000 a year in out-of-pocket costs with coinsurance.

Large Cost Variations for Radiation Therapy

A study published in the Journal of Oncology Practice shows the large reimbursement variations in Medicare for radiation therapy in cancer care. The study analyzed 55,288 patients with breast, lung and prostate cancer who were treated with radiotherapy.

The findings show the significant cost differences for radiation are largely unrelated to patient or disease factors and based more on geography and rates of individual providers.

Cancer-Specific Radiation Therapy Costs

  • Breast cancer costs icon

    $8,600 for breast cancer

  • Lung cancer costs icon

    $9,000 for lung cancer

  • Prostate cancer costs icon

    $18,000 for prostate cancer

Source: Journal of Oncology Practice, 2015
U.S. map showing cancer death rates vs poverty rates

The Uninsured or Underinsured

Many people struggle to pay rising health insurance premiums and copays, or they can’t reach high deductibles before insurance coverage begins.

According to the Commonwealth Fund Biennial Health Insurance Survey, 23% of U.S. adults ages 19-64 were “underinsured” in 2018, meaning their out-of-pocket health care costs, excluding premiums, equaled 10% or more of their yearly income.

More than 44 million Americans remain underinsured because of high out-of-pocket costs and deductibles. Another 28 million were uninsured in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The majority of the uninsured were men ages 19 to 64 with less than a high school education, lower incomes or both.

In 2017, uninsured nonelderly adults were more than twice as likely as their insured counterparts to have had problems paying medical bills in the past 12 months.

Sources: Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, 2018; Commonwealth Fund Biennial Health Insurance Survey, 2018; JAMA Oncology, 2017; American Cancer Society, 2018

Blue-Collar Workers

Blue-collar workers are often exposed to carcinogens at the workplace.

Traditional blue-collar jobs represent a small portion of the U.S. labor force today, according to a 2018 report from Demos, a policy research think tank. Only 8% of the working class, or about 8 million workers, holds jobs in the manufacturing sector.

Annual mean wages for the top blue-collar jobs was around $50,000 in 2018, according to Forbes. That’s less than the monthly cost of some cancer drugs.

Statistics on cost of cancer treatment relative to income

Fast Facts About Blue-Collar Workers

Sources: CDC, 2018; Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, 2014; Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 2014

Mesothelioma Disproportionately Affects Blue-Collar Workers

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer caused almost exclusively by occupational exposure to asbestos — 85% to 90% of cases — making it the No. 1 occupational cancer in the world.

The cancer carries a long latency period, often developing decades after workers were initially exposed to asbestos. Many mesothelioma patients are diagnosed after retiring from blue-collar jobs and now must pay out-of-pocket treatment costs on fixed incomes.

The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com examined 360 confirmed cases of mesothelioma among blue-collar workers who were diagnosed since 2002.

Pie chart showing average salaries of mesothelioma patients

The cost of multimodal treatment of mesothelioma (combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy) is comparable to that of lung cancer, which averages between $55,548 and $79,8181 during the initial six months of care, according to a January 2019 study published in Cancer Medicine.

Higher Risk of Occupational Cancer

Blue-collar jobs put Americans more at risk of developing occupational cancers, or cancers caused by exposures to carcinogens in the workplace.

The World Health Organization and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recognize nine main occupational cancers.

Top Occupational Cancers in the US

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Cancer Percentage of cases related to occupation Occupations affected
Mesothelioma 85% to 95% Construction, Navy veterans, industrial workers, firefighters, power plant workers
Sinonasal and nasopharyngeal cancer (nose) 33% to 46% Boot and shoe manufacturing and repair, carpenters
Bladder cancer 7% to 19% Cable makers, synthetic latex production, industrial workers who manufacture magenta, auramine, p-chloro-o-toluidine, pigment chromate, and dyes; gas-retort house workers
Lung cancer 6.3% to 13% Production and refining of arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, aluminum and chromium; mining of uranium, copper smelting, iron and steel founding, vineyard workers, roofers, asphalt workers, painters
Laryngeal cancer 1.5% to 20% Pickling operations