It’s a common misconception that if you have health insurance, the financial impact of a cancer diagnosis is negligible. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The deductible and out-of-pocket maximum for a year of cancer treatment can cost thousands of dollars depending on your insurance coverage, and that’s just for the treatments and medications that are covered by insurance. In many cases, treatment covers multiple calendar years, meaning families pay the deductible and out-of-pocket maximum repeatedly.If you have to travel for treatments, or to see specialists, you will likely pay 100% of your travel expenses. If you choose to be treated by reputable doctors outside of your provider network, you may be responsible for up to 100% of the cost of your treatments. 

If you request a second opinion, as I did, you may have to pay for some or all of those appointments depending on your health care coverage. My HMO advertised their affiliation with the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) specifically for second opinions. However, when I sought a second opinion regarding my treatment, my request was denied. I had to pay $1,600 up front just to schedule a tumor board review with the SCCA. After battling with my HMO for four months, I was finally reimbursed. If I had not been able to make the initial payment out-of-pocket, a second opinion would not have been an option.

Nutritional supplements can alleviate some of the side effects of cancer treatments, but are not covered by insurance.

Nutritional supplements are often recommended to minimize the side effects of cancer treatments, and to reduce the likelihood of recurrence. Supplements are not covered by health insurance and can be quite expensive. Not every cancer patient will opt to take supplements, but the unpleasant side effects associated with some prescribed medications can be disruptive to daily life. I chose to use supplements that did not have undesirable side effects to help me get through chemotherapy. I still take supplements to prevent recurrence and to counteract some of the long-lasting effects of my treatments. The supplements I’ve taken during and after treatments cost over $2,000 per year.

In addition to paying for doctor appointments, treatments, medications, and supplements, there are other expenses incurred during cancer treatments. For example, most people going through chemotherapy will lose their hair. A well-made, natural-looking wig can cost several hundred dollars. I chose not to wear a wig because I knew it would be itchy on my scalp (I’m the princess and the pea when it comes to material against my skin). That being said, my head was cold day and night, even during the summer! I wore hats and scarves to stay warm and protect my scalp from the sun every day. While I was able to wear a couple of hats that I already had for winter, I had to buy scarves and hats that were suitable for various temperatures and occasions.

While the expenses above and beyond those covered by health insurance can add up quickly, the most devastating cost of cancer treatment is the loss of income. I am in awe of people who work full-time while going through chemotherapy. I’m sure some cancer patients choose to continue working to maintain some semblance of control over their lives or because they simply love their jobs. But many others need to work to pay their bills or to keep their insurance. Without insurance, most of us would go bankrupt paying for cancer treatments. The fact of the matter is, unless you have a large sum of money set aside for emergencies, bankruptcy is possible even with health insurance.

Being able to take the time to rest and recover from treatments is important for optimal healing. Furthermore, many people going through treatments are too fatigued or ill to work full days. In these cases, loss of income can threaten their ability to make mortgage payments, pay rent, cover electricity or heat bills, and put food on the table. Financial stress during a medical crisis is not only antagonistic to the healing process, but it’s disruptive to the entire family at a time when they are already uncertain about their future.

There is no doubt that a cancer diagnosis will affect the financial well-being of the average family. Fortunately, organizations like The Mayday Foundation exist to help families cover some of their household expenses and prevent the financial toxicity and bankruptcy associated with a cancer diagnosis.

Melanie Kallas Ricklefs is a mom, wife, daughter, sister, and friend. She is also a breast cancer survivor. She was diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer in April 2016. She underwent chemotherapy, a lumpectomy, and radiation to find her way back to health. Melanie has always enjoyed working and playing outdoors. You can find her and her family hiking, biking, kayaking, backpacking, and camping throughout the Pacific Northwest. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Forest Biology from the University of Vermont, and a Master of Science in Forest Pathology from Colorado State University.  To read more of Melanie’s articles related to cancer, click here.

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