Without question, the last challenge cancer patients need to face is the double blow of serious health issues and serious financial issues. Yet “financial toxicity” is increasingly recognized as a potentially devastating side effect of cancer.

Collateral damage

Those who work on the frontlines of cancer care are all too familiar with the financial havoc that a cancer diagnosis can unleash on patients and their families. Our cancer program recently saw a self-employed patient with a young family. Even though the patient and his spouse both worked and the patient had health coverage, the plan had hefty monthly premiums, as well as a high deductible and high co-insurance. Once treatment started, the patient became too sick to work.

"According to a recent survey, 93 percent of responding cancer programs report offering financial counseling services to patients..."

For this family, as for many others, cancer’s economic toll extended beyond treatment costs to include added financial burdens—time away from work, plus expenses from traveling to treatment.

Having the conversation

Discussion about costs related to cancer treatment can be daunting for both patients and their health care team. In fact, a recent study from Duke Cancer Institute found that although most cancer patients would like to talk about the cost of care with their doctors, they often do not. Patients may be reluctant to ask about costs for a variety of reasons, ranging from embarrassment to worrying that it might affect the quality of their treatment.

Doctors, too, may not feel prepared to have this conversation with patients. And yet, research is showing that talking about the cost of cancer treatment does help. At many community cancer programs, members of the multidisciplinary care team—physicians, nurses, social workers, and pharmacists—are taking steps to help patients and their families talk about financial issues that may come as an unwanted side effect of cancer treatment. According to a recent survey, 93 percent of responding cancer programs report offering financial counseling services to patients, and 74 percent report having a financial specialist on staff. 

STAYING INFORMED: Many programs are now adding financial advisors to help patients through the issues that come with financing treatments.

Specializing care

Today, many cancer programs are adding a new staff member to the multidisciplinary care team—a financial advocate or oncology financial navigator. This professional works with patients and their families to help find strategies for reducing financial barriers to care and identify resources for patients and their care providers.

How can a financial advocate help? Today, a financial advocate may work with the type of patient mentioned above to secure a grant to cover his deductible, coinsurance and monthly premiums so he could keep his health insurance coverage. A financial advocate might also be able to secure additional support to help with transportation costs and other household needs. An important first step for patients and providers alike: talking about costs early in the care process.