Breast cancer can come with a hefty price tag. Even when your doctor finds the cancer early, you could face a long road of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, medications, doctor visits, and tests. And there may be expenses you never anticipated.
In one study, 1 in 3 women said the costs of care were more than they expected -- so much so that some avoided doctor visits. Even if they have good insurance, women with breast cancer find the costs can be front-loaded. Deductibles, co-pays, and co-insurance pile up in the first 2-3 months after diagnosis, before you hit your out-of-pocket maximum.
The best way to deal with the costs of breast cancer treatment is to address them head-on. Learn as much as you can about what expenses you'll have and plan carefully for them. That includes talking to your doctor about how much your treatments will cost.
Your oncologist can refer you to groups that help pay for medications and services like transportation and child care. Above all, don’t skip treatments or doctor visits because of money worries.
Your Treatment Plan
There's no one-size-fits-all approach to treating breast cancer. Your doctors will create a treatment plan based on your own situation. It may include a combination of:
- Surgeries like lumpectomy, mastectomy, lymph node removal, and breast reconstruction
- Radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors
- Chemotherapy drugs to attack cancer cells
- Hormone therapies to stop tumors from growing
- Targeted therapies that go after cancer cells with less impact on healthy cells than chemotherapy
- Immunotherapy to encourage your body’s immune system to attack cancer cells
Even after treatment, you may need:
- Visits to an oncologist, every few months at first and then once a year after 5 years
- Mammograms 6-12 months after a lumpectomy and then once a year. After a mastectomy, you'll need one annually for the remaining breast.
- Pelvic exams annually if you take certain hormone drugs that raise risks of uterine cancer
- Bone density tests if you take other hormone drugs
- Medications to reduce the risk that your cancer will come back
Direct Medical Costs
So how much might treatment cost you? It depends on your insurance plan, what type and stage of cancer you have, where you live, and more. But a couple of studies shed some light on possible expenses.
One study looked at costs allowed by insurance companies for breast cancer surgery, chemo, radiation, medications, and certain other medical costs for women ages 18-64. It found costs were higher soon after diagnosis, when surgeries were common. They went down once the approach shifted to chemotherapy.
- For women diagnosed with stage 0 breast cancer (small, localized tumors), these medical costs totaled $48,477, on average, 6 months after diagnosis. The total rose to $71,909 after 2 years.
- For stages I and II (tumors had not grown deeply into nearby tissues), the range was $61,621-$97,066
- For stage III (larger tumors that spread to nearby areas), $84,481-$159,442
- For stage IV (affecting other parts of the body), $89,463-$182,655
The American Cancer Society looked at medical costs in a different way. In a case study, after one woman was diagnosed with stage I breast cancer, she had a lumpectomy and biopsy. Later, she had chemotherapy, radiation, daily hormone therapy pills, and regular visits to a primary care doctor and oncologists.
You often need more than just a doctor's care when you have breast cancer.
- You might need physical therapy for pain, tightness, and swelling in your arms after surgery. Many health plans cover physical therapy for cancer treatment. Check with your insurer.
- Mental health therapy can help you deal with the stresses of cancer treatment. In the U.S., fees per session usually range from $100-$200.
- Acupuncture can help relieve the nausea, fatigue, and other effects of chemo and radiation. Costs vary depending on where you live. But a first-time visit averages about $112 and follow-up visits around $80. Many insurers cover acupuncture for cancer treatment, so check with yours.
- You might need a wig because of hair loss from chemo or radiation. Synthetic wigs cost anywhere from $30-$500, while a wig made from real hair could run more than $800. Some insurance companies will cover wigs if your doctor writes a prescription. It's worth asking your oncologist and your insurer.
You'll probably need to take some time off work, too. Research your employer's health leave policies, along with disability programs you may qualify for. Include any lost income in your financial calculations.
More Tips for Controlling Costs
- Look into medication assistance programs offered by many drug companies.
- Compare the price of your medications at different pharmacies and online.
- Ask your doctor about taking part in a clinical trial. This lets you get state-of-the-art treatment while bringing down costs.
Take Charge of Your Recovery
The best way to manage your costs is to be proactive. Take steps to anticipate and manage the costs of your treatment.
Do your research. And don’t be shy about seeking help from doctors, hospitals, drug companies, and support groups. If you don't feel up to it, ask friends and relatives to help.
Taking charge of expenses will help you keep your focus where it belongs -- on your recovery.