Over 330,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. In my family alone, my grandmother, great aunt, and mom have all battled this wicked disease.
And while treatment advances and early detection have done an amazing job at increasing the survival rate of breast cancer, the financial burden doesn’t just stop when treatment ends.
Even for women in remission, many have to take a step back in their careers and foot the bill for long-term medical costs like hormonal therapy and increased doctors’ visits – all of which impact their ability to save.
The financial side effects of breast cancer
One in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer during their lifetime. It’s one in 833 for men. The Pink Fund – a nonprofit that provides 90-day non-medical cost-of-living expenses to breast cancer patients in active treatment – found that breast cancer patients see a 130% increase in financial hardships while undergoing treatment.
Here are a few reasons why:
The cost of treating breast cancer is higher than any other cancer
Best case scenario, a woman’s breast cancer is caught in its early stages and she has a solid employer-sponsored healthcare plan to help foot the bill. Even still, it’s estimated that she’ll pay $5,800 in out-of-pocket costs for treatment.
And for women with a late-stage diagnosis or no insurance at all, out-of-pocket costs skyrocket astronomically.
One study found that the true cost of cancer treatment can range from $48,477 for stage 0 breast cancer all the way up to $182,655 for stage IV. These figures are pretty devastating considering almost 36% of households don’t have enough money on hand to cover a $400 emergency.
Jamie Vanek – a breast cancer survivor who was diagnosed at age 36 – told me about the one time she got a surprise $14,000 medical bill halfway through treatment:
“I was incredibly fortunate to have military Tricare insurance through the initial stages of my treatment. However, six months later, after chemo, surgeries, and 10 rounds of radiation, I received a bill for $14,000.”
She went on to explain that she lost her Tricare insurance when her husband’s military assignment was over – and her radiology oncologist didn’t accept her new insurance. She was receiving radiation daily and couldn’t stop mid-treatment.
“I brought the bill to the oncologist’s office in tears. The woman in charge of billing reached out to the insurance company, confirming that it wasn’t approved. After several panicked moments, the doctor was able to file it as a critical treatment with the insurance company, which stated they were unable to transfer me to another facility.”
Having it filed as a critical treatment was the only way Jamie could get her insurance to cover the bill. Otherwise, she would have had to stop treatment or find a way to pay the $14,000 herself.
But costs don’t just stop once treatment ends. They keep adding up…
Some breast cancer survivors have to take hormone therapy drugs for 5 to 10 years following treatment to reduce their chances of recurrence. And depending on which drug tier this medication falls in, it can be quite expensive. As Jamie says:
“My hormone medication cost $700 after insurance – a recurring bill that I receive every three months, totaling $28,000 over ten years. Even though I had the resources to cover it, it still felt unfair. I didn’t even want the medication. In fact, I hated it.”
Women also have higher costs to face if they’re diagnosed with lymphedema – a common side effect that occurs in women who have to have their lymph nodes removed. One study found that women with lymphedema faced 122% higher monthly costs ($355 vs. $160) than breast cancer survivors without lymphedema.
For many women, their careers are never the same after a breast cancer diagnosis
On average, breast cancer survivors lose at least $1,000 more in annual earnings due to missed workdays and employment disability compared to people without a cancer history.
Between 20% and 30% of survivors lose their jobs altogether, while 37% have to make at least one career change. Christine Sager is one example of this.
Christine was diagnosed with breast cancer 10 years ago at age 36. She was at the top of her career and making more money than she ever had before. But after her diagnosis, she was forced to refocus her priorities and find a job with less stress. She also realized how fragile life was and wanted more quality time with her husband and two young girls.
“Every career move I made [after my treatment] was a step down and backward. Eventually, within four years, I was working part-time while my girls were in school but I was also making $75k less per year than I was at the time of diagnosis.”
BRCA gene mutations make it even more expensive
While most women have a 13% chance of developing breast cancer in their lifetimes, women with the BRCA1 gene have a 55% to 72% of developing cancer. Those with the BRCA2 gene have a 45% to 69% chance. They’re also at a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer.
Managing this type of diagnosis can get quite expensive, as you can imagine. Monica Monfre Scantlebury was kind enough to share her experience with me:
“Having this diagnosis has impacted my long-term goals, especially because a diagnosis of BRCA1 means I need preventative care, have a pre-existing condition, and that life insurance is much more expensive for me.”
Monica went on to tell me about her sister, who also had the BRCA1 gene mutation and died of breast cancer in March 2020:
“My sister was 27 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was a mom to four children under 10 years old. She tried to continue working when diagnosed, but she was so sick. There were so many bills, so many hospital visits, and she had to drive everywhere. None of this was inexpensive.”
Because Monica’s sister was also BRCA1, her children may also carry the genetic mutation.
Breast cancer diagnoses have the hardest financial impact on Black women
Black women are under disproportionately higher stress when they’re diagnosed with breast cancer. According to a long-running Carolina Breast Cancer Study, 59% of Black women say their breast cancer diagnosis had a negative impact on their finances — compared to just 40% of White women.
Black women were also two to four times more likely to cite all five of these indicators (not just one) as a reason for their financial strain:
- Decreased income.
- Financial barriers to care.
- Transportation barriers.
- Losing a job as a result of the cancer diagnosis and treatment.
- Losing insurance as a result of losing a job after the cancer diagnosis.
The pay gap is one indicator of this. Black women are already earning $0.64 for every $1 a White man makes. And among married heads of households, Black households have the highest share (52.5%) of women-headed homes. This type of financial strain forces many Black women to delay treatment or end therapy early in favor of earning an income.
Read more: 9 Strategies For Narrowing The Gender Pay Gap
Financial resources for breast cancer survivors and their families
Even if you have good health insurance, a breast cancer diagnosis can drain your savings if you have to take time off work or front-load costs for childcare, transportation, co-pays, deductibles, and more.
Here are some financial resources you can turn to. I categorized them based on the type of support they provide. You can find even more resources on Susan G. Komen’s website.
For personal expenses
First and foremost, talk with a financial counselor at your hospital to see if you qualify for any local, state, or federal financial assistance programs. They’ll know your situation best.
The Pink Fund is a nonprofit that provides 90-day non-medical cost-of-living expenses for breast cancer patients in active treatment. You must show a loss of working income, be actively undergoing treatment, and have a household income of 500% or less than the federal poverty level to qualify.
Komen Treatment Assistance Program is another one to look into. You receive $500 if you have stage IV cancer and $300 if you have stages 0 to III. Your household income must be at or below 300% of the federal poverty line to qualify. (You can view the FPL chart on their website for exact ranges).
For lodging and transportation expenses
The American Cancer Society has some great resources for families. Their Hope Lodge provides lodging during cancer treatments. Their Road to Recovery Program provides local transportation to and from treatments.
For child and elder care expenses
If you have children or older family members who rely on you, first see if you have any friends or family members who are willing to help. (Most want to help you but don’t know how – just ask!)
You can also check out CancerCare. They provide financial assistance for child and elder care during treatment. The Komen Treatment Assistance Program does as well.
For prescription drugs
There are several organizations out there that will help you cover prescription drug costs. The Breast Cancer Copay Assistance Program helps with co-payments. The Komen Treatment Assistance Program will provide some financial assistance for medications. MedicalAssistanceTool.org has a free drug program for low-income families.
One last piece of advice
Jamie had this last piece of advice to share with women going through breast cancer treatment:
“Advocate for yourself in any situation – whether it’s working with providers to lower your bills or with your employer to revise sick-leave policies.”
She also encourages women to seek out a patient navigator and support group:
“I became very involved with Here for the Girls – a group supporting young women with breast cancer. They helped me find childcare when I needed treatment and drove me to surgery when my family had the flu. They also connected me to Camp Kesem – a free week-long summer camp for children who have had parents with cancer. It’s now my daughter’s favorite week of the year.”
I would like to personally thank Jamie, Christine, and Monica for openly discussing how their breast cancer diagnosis affected them financially.
If you or someone you love is battling breast cancer, I hope their stories inspire you to stay strong and keep fighting. You’re not alone in this battle. You have an army of friends, family members, and online strangers ready to support you.