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Debt, Bankruptcy are Rewards for Cancer Survivors

One third of working-age cancer survivors go into debt, and 3 percent file for bankruptcy, according to a new study.

Cancer care costs have increased two to three times faster than other healthcare expenses in recent years in the U.S., the authors wrote. The average monthly cost of a new cancer therapy agent is now $10,000 and can be as high as $60,000.

Using 2012 survey data from 4,719 cancer survivors ages 18 to 64, Dr. Matthew Banegas at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research in Portland, Oregon and colleagues found that one-third had gone into debt because of cancer, and in more than half of those cases, the debt was above $10,000. Three percent had filed for bankruptcy.

Related: Cancer Raises Bankruptcy Risks

Younger age, lower income and public health insurance increased the risk of debt or bankruptcy, the researchers reported in Health Affairs.

A previous study found that bankruptcy rates are more than two times higher for people with a history of cancer than for others.

"Multiple studies have shown that cancer patients and survivors are at risk for facing treatment-related financial burden, with a small minority at risk for extreme burden in the form of personal bankruptcy," said Dr. Yousuf Zafar of Duke Cancer Institute in Durham, North Carolina, who was not part of the new study.

The High Cost of Care Is Driving Cancer Patients to Bankruptcy 2:57

The greatest immediate cost for those treated outside of the hospital is, most frequently, drugs, but surgery, hospitalizations, and other medical fees can also result in large bills for patients, Zafar told Reuters Health by email.

Zafar conducted an earlier study that found that family members of cancer patients sometimes had to work longer hours to make up for the loss in household income.

"It was interesting really for us to find out that a third of our study population reported that they incurred debt or had to borrow money," Banegas said in a phone interview.

Related: Medical Bills Drive Women Into Debt

Cancer can impact time at work and also work related tasks if patients are able to go to work, he said.

"If they have to take time off, they may have to use extended time or extended leave which could impact insurance coverage and impact how cost affects them," Banegas said.

It's not clear what types of cancer tend to result in the most financial hardship, he said.

"Professional societies in oncology are working toward generating this kind of information," Banegas said. "A lot of the newer cancer drugs are coming at a higher price tag."

Some resources, including LIVESTRONG, which conducted the survey generating this study's data, can help cancer survivors struggling financially, he noted.

LIVESTRONG can help connect survivors with cancer assistance resources and most healthcare agencies have medical financial assistance programs.

"We want to be able to provide patients with as much information as we can so that when they are (considering) which treatments to take or what it will cost them, they have this information," Banegas said.

Cancer patients should seek out financial counselors or social workers at the treatment facility when they are diagnosed, Zafar said. "Next, patients can check with foundations like the American Cancer Society to see what local resources are available."

"As oncologists, we spend a great deal of time talking to patients about the long-term physical side effects of treatment," he said. "We could do a better job of talking about the potential for financial harm."