Affordability and access to care

Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. , Civil rights leader

Affordability and access to care at a glance

The cost of medical care can be a barrier to receiving effective treatment. Beyond direct medical costs, cancer treatment can have many indirect costs for people: transportation, lost wages, extra child care or elder care, counseling, support for daily household tasks, and help with your basic care at home.

Further barriers to effective medical care may be part of the neighborhood and social environment that you live in. The lack of medical professionals and services in your community can interfere with your ability to get prompt and effective treatment. Other barriers may include these:

  • Unsafe housing, transportation, and neighborhoods
  • Racism, discrimination, and violence
  • Limited education, job opportunities, and income
  • Lack of access to nutritious foods and opportunities for physical activity
  • Polluted air and water
  • Language and literacy barriers

Resources are available to help you overcome both financial and other barriers to care.

On this page

Costs of cancer care

Treating cancer is expensive. The national cost of cancer treatment in the US in 2020 was $158 billion and is projected to be $246 billion by 2030.1Mariotto AB, Enewold L, Zhao J, Zeruto CA, Yabroff KR. Medical care costs associated with cancer survivorship in the United States. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. 2020 Jul;29(7):1304-1312. Financial burdens, also called financial toxicity, can be substantial for people with cancer.2Zhu Z, Xing W, Zhang X, Hu Y, So WKW. Cancer survivors’ experiences with financial toxicity: a systematic review and meta-synthesis of qualitative studies. Psycho-Oncology. 2020 Jun;29(6):945-959. Annual treatment for breast cancer in the US can cost between $20,000 and $100,000,3Exley R. This woman paid over $225,000 to beat breast cancer. Health insurance didn’t cover her bill. CNBC. October 22, 2020. Viewed January 29, 2022. with total costs more than $200,000.4The Costs of Breast Cancer. Web MD Cancer Center. 2021. Viewed March 25, 2022; Trogdon JG, Baggett CD et al. Medical costs associated with metastatic breast cancer in younger, midlife, and older women. Breast Cancer Research and Treatment. 2020 Jun;181(3):653-665.

Most people diagnosed with cancer have anxiety about finances. A third of people with cancer said insurance issues—such as deductibles and copays, pre-authorization requirements, or lack of prescription coverage—make receiving the best care difficult. To reduce the cost of cancer care, those living with cancer, families members, and caregivers report taking steps that may negatively affect treatment outcomes, such as delaying or failing to fill prescriptions. Most caregivers have made personal financial sacrifices such as dipping into savings or delaying retirement to help pay for cancer treatment.5ASCO 2020 National Cancer Opinions Survey. American Society of Clinical Oncology. October 2020. Viewed January 18, 2022. 

Understanding your finances and how to minimize your financial burden can ease stress and improve your quality of life. 

What influences the cost of cancer treatment?

Factors affecting the cost of your medical care

  • Your type of cancer 
  • Your treatment plan 
  • Treatment location
  • Your health insurance coverage 

Non-medical expenses

  • Transportation: gasoline, tolls, parking, public transit, or air fare
  • Child care
  • Elder care 
  • Counseling 
  • Support for daily tasks such as house cleaning, cooking, laundry, or pet care
  • Care assistance at home 

Further adding to financial burdens, people with cancer may be unable to work, and career advancement can be interrupted.6Rajagopal L, Liamputtong P, McBride KA. The lived experience of Australian women living with breast cancer: a meta-synthesis. Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention. 2019 Nov 1;20(11):3233-3249. 

Dr. Harold Freeman pioneered the Patient Navigator Program in Harlem so that the poor and uninsured could be screened and treated for cancer. He talks with Katie Couric on CBSNews.com. Learn more about Dr. Freeman from OncLive Giants of Cancer Care: Harold P. Freeman, MD, Founder, Harold P. Freeman Patient Navigation Institute ›

Questions for your oncology team

Discuss with your treatment team how your cancer diagnosis may impact your financial situation. Some examples of questions that may be helpful are listed here.7Questions to Ask about Cost. Cancer.Net. March 2018. Viewed January 18, 2022.

Treatment plan costs and options
  • Who can help me estimate the total cost of the recommended treatment plan?
  • Do you have any financial conflicts of interest in proposing this treatment plan for me?
  • Does my health insurance company need to approve any part or all of the treatment plan before I begin treatment?
  • Is the treatment center that you are recommending in my insurance plan’s network?
  • Is this medication on my health insurance plan’s preferred drug list?
  • Can I switch to a less expensive brand-name or generic drug within the same drug class?
  • If I cannot afford this treatment plan, can we consider other treatment options that do not cost as much?
  • Do any programs help cover the costs of my drug(s) for cancer treatment or side effects?
  • Should I plan financially for long-term medical care, such as a nursing home, or for hospice care?
Understanding bills and insurance
  • When is payment due?
  • Do I have a co-pay for my visits? 
  • Who can help me understand my bills? 
  • Who handles concerns and questions about health insurance in this office or medical center?
  • Will this person help me figure out my medical bills and the codes on the bills to make sure they are correct?
  • If an insurance claim is denied, who can help me file an appeal?
Support for non-medical expenses
  • Can someone help me organize my expenses, keep track of incoming bills, and plan my budget?
  • Is free or low-cost transportation available at the medical center where I will have treatment?
  • Are reduced parking rates available for patients at the medical center or doctor’s office?
  • Do any organizations help patients pay for transportation to and from treatments and medical appointments?
  • If I am traveling a long distance, are any free or reduced-cost hotels or lodging near the treatment facility?
Adjusting payments 
  • Do you offer payment plans? 
  • If I need multiple visits to a doctor’s office, do you have a policy allowing me to pay the co-pay only once or not at all (a waiver)?

Questions for your insurance company

  • Does my insurance cover other doctor visits, such as for a second opinion?
  • What expenses does my health insurance cover if I need to be admitted to the hospital?
  • What expenses does my health insurance cover if I receive treatment as an outpatient?
  • What is my prescription co-pay for my medication? 

If you need assistance with either medical or nonmedical expenses, ask if your treatment team has a social worker or can refer you to programs to help you address your needs.

Commentary

CancerChoices Senior Clinical Consultant Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS: Think twice before using your credit card to pay your medical bills, especially if you won’t have the money to pay off the credit card when it comes due the next month. Hospitals and medical offices often offer payment plans with much more reasonable terms and interest rates. Once you charge the bill to the credit card, you no longer have the ability to negotiate your bill with the facility or doctor who provided your medical care. 

My brother, for example, had a medical emergency that landed him first in the emergency department, then in the intensive care unit (ICU). At discharge, he felt pressured by the hospital to pay the out-of-pocket costs with his credit card. He was still weak and vulnerable and felt as though he had to give them an answer right then, without consulting a family member or an advocate. So he handed them the credit card. A better decision would have been not to agree to pay by credit card and ask to have someone from the business office call him about making payment arrangements. That decision to pay the large bill with a credit card saddled him in credit card debt that took years to pay off. 

Resources

Resources for financial assistance

Can complementary or self care reduce costs of cancer care?

Self care

Self-carein cancer care, complementary care involves the use of therapies intended to enhance or add to standard conventional treatments; examples include supplements, mind-body approaches such as yoga or psychosocialtherapy, and acupuncture approaches have low costs and may even save you money. We provide links to many free or low-cost resources to help you eat well, move more, sleep well, manage stress, share love and support, eliminate tobacco use, reduce alcohol, and bring your body to a better weight—all of which are directly linked to better outcomes and reduced risk of recurrence.

Complementary care

Complementaryin cancer care, complementary care involves the use of therapies intended to enhance or add to standard conventional treatments; examples include supplements, mind-body approaches such as yoga or psychosocialtherapy, and acupuncture cancer care includes a wide range of therapies and costs, from low-cost supplements or over-the-counter drugs to very expensive treatments that may also involve travel. We report and rate the general level of expense for each of the complementary therapies we review. 

Most complementary therapies support your wellness and healing, but few have shown substantial ability to treat cancer. In our view, complementary therapies cannot replace curative conventional treatments, but many may reduce the unpleasant side effects and perhaps enhance the effectiveness of conventional therapies. You’ll need to consider the costs of complementary care in the context of all your cancer care costs: 

  • Direct costs and benefits: Complementary therapies may not be covered by insurance, and measuring direct impacts on your health and wellness is difficult. Some evidence has found a higher risk of financial catastropheout-of-pocket cancer-related costs 30% or more of annual household income and medical impoverishmentreduction in annual household income to below poverty line following subtraction of out-of-pocket cancer-related costs among people with cancer using complementary therapies in upper-middle-income countries in southeast Asia. Risks were higher for economically disadvantaged households.8Kong YC, Kimman M et al; ACTION Study Group. Out-of-pocket payments for complementary medicine following cancer and the effect on financial outcomes in middle-income countries in southeast Asia: a prospective cohort study. Lancet Global Health. 2022 Mar;10(3):e416-e428. We encourage you to carefully consider the strength of evidence, plus the costs, of any therapy you are considering. Our reviews of therapies summarize and rate both the evidence and the relative costs.
  • Indirect costs and benefits: If complementary therapies may help you remain well enough to keep working during or after treatment, the cost could be more than offset by your earnings. Similarly, if you would need to hire help to care for your family or yourself, and use of some complementary therapies could keep you well enough to reduce these costs, then these therapies may be cost-effective.
  • Insurance coverage: Some insurance plans cover some complementary therapies, such as acupuncture or massage. Check your insurance regarding coverage.

Once you know your likely costs of complementary therapies, we encourage you to ask your doctor, integrative medicine team, and insurance provider about low-cost or no-cost options that may be available for complementary therapies. 

Other barriers to care

Non-medical factors and cancer outcomes

Inequalities in economic, educational, health care, and other environments can contribute to poor health. These inequalities can interfere with your ability to access and pay for health care. The lack of medical professionals and services in your community—even if cost is not a barrier—can impact your ability to get prompt and effective treatment. 

Inequalities can also contribute to other health conditions that may reduce an individual’s or a whole community’s wellness and resilience. These inequalities can affect your health, your ability to access care, your ability to pay for health care, and your quality of life. They may also impact your cancer treatment outcomes. 

Resources

Addressing barriers to care

If you feel that you have one or more barriers to your medical care, ask your oncology team or hospital if a social worker or patient navigator is available to help you. 

“A cancer patient navigator is an individual trained to help identify and resolve real and perceived barriers to care, enabling patients to adhere to care recommendations and thus improve their cancer outcomes.”9Braun KL, Kagawa-Singer M et al. Cancer patient navigator tasks across the cancer care continuum. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved. 2012 Feb;23(1):398-413. 

Research studies have found that navigators can reduce inequities in care.

Tap or click to read more.

If you do not understand your care, you have the right to ask for clarification. If you are experiencing a language barrier, ask for an interpreter. By doing so, you may be helping future patients as well as yourself. 

If you are unsure about the treatment plan you are given, you have the right to seek a second (or third) opinion from another physician or health facility.

Everyone deserves to be treated with respect. If you feel you are experiencing racist or discriminatory actions, speak up. You have several options for “speaking up.”

The Joint Commission: Speak Up Against Discrimination

If you feel that you are being unfairly treated by your health care team because of your race, ethnicity, income, or housing status, or if you do not understand your care, we encourage you to bring this up with your team. If you are not comfortable talking with your team or if you are not getting the help you need, The Joint Commission has the following recommendations:12Speak Up™ Against Discrimination. The Joint Commission. May 2021. Viewed January 29, 2022. 

  • Find out about the policy at the hospital or health care organization for reporting complaints. If possible, try to work with the organization. 
  • Talk to the organization’s patient advocacy department (sometimes also called the patient liaison office or the patient advocacy team). 

If you’re not satisfied with the response or outcomes from the hospital or institution, these options are available.

Your city, county, or state may have an office within the health department that deals with health care quality. You can contact this office with complaints, and you may get a quicker response time than from a federal government agency.

US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division

By phone: 202-514-3847

By phone device for people who are hearing impaired (TTY): 202-514-0716

The Joint Commission

If your issue remains unaddressed and the organization is accredited or certified by The Joint Commission, you can report your patient safety concern.

Online: Joint Commission Connect ›

By mail: Office of Quality and Patient Safety
The Joint Commission
One Renaissance Boulevard
Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois 60181

Resources on barriers to care

Resources for legal issues

Are you a health professional?

Many people with cancer experience financial toxicity, and some have unmet needs even after adjustments.13Zhu Z, Xing W, Zhang X, Hu Y, So WKW. Cancer survivors’ experiences with financial toxicity: a systematic review and meta-synthesis of qualitative studies. Psycho-Oncology. 2020 Jun;29(6):945-959. Financial burdens can even cause some people to discontinue treatment.

Referring patients to social workers, patient navigators, or others who can help them navigate and manage financial issues is a core offering in many cancer centers and hospitals. If you don’t already access these resources for your patients, consider finding out what’s available in your area and adding information to your resources for patients. 

Resources for professionals

Keep reading about how to integrate your choices

Authors

Whitney You, MD, MPH

Research Consultant
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Dr. You is a physician specializing in maternal-fetal medicine (MFM) with a specific interest in cancer in the context of pregnancy. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship in health services research with a focus in health literacy and received a Master of Public Health.

Whitney You, MD, MPH Research Consultant

Nancy Hepp, MS

Lead Researcher and Program Manager
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Ms. Hepp is a researcher and communicator who has been writing and editing educational content on varied health topics for more than 20 years. She serves as lead researcher, program manager, and writer for CancerChoices. Her graduate work in research and cognitive psychology, her master’s degree in instructional design, and her certificate in web design have all guided her in writing and presenting information for a wide variety of audiences and uses. Nancy’s service as faculty development coordinator in the Department of Family Medicine at Wright State University also provided experience in medical research, plus insights into medical education and medical care from the professional’s perspective.

Nancy Hepp, MS Lead Researcher and Program Manager

Reviewers

Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS

Senior Clinical Consultant
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Laura Pole is senior clinical consultant for CancerChoices. Laura is an oncology clinical nurse specialist who has been providing integrative oncology clinical care, navigation, consultation, and education services for over 40 years. She is the co-creator and co-coordinator of the Integrative Oncology Navigation Training at Smith Center for Healing and the Arts in Washington, DC. Laura also manages the “Media Watch Cancer News That You Can Use” listserv for Smith Center/Commonweal. In her role as a palliative care educator and consultant, Laura has served as statewide Respecting Choices Faculty for the Virginia POST (Physician Orders for Scope of Treatment) Collaborative as well as provided statewide professional education on palliative and end-of-life care for the Virginia Association for Hospices and Palliative Care.

For CancerChoices, Laura curates content and research, networks with clinical and organizational partners, brings awareness and education of integrative oncology at professional and patient conferences and programs, and translates research into information relevant to the patient experience as well as clinical practice.

Laura sees her work with CancerChoices as a perfect alignment of all her passions, knowledge and skills in integrative oncology care. She is honored to serve you.

Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS Senior Clinical Consultant

Miki Scheidel

Co-Founder and Creative Director
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Miki Scheidel is Co-founder and creative director of CancerChoices. She led the effort to transform Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies, the prior version of CancerChoices, to its current form. Miki and her family were deeply affected by her father’s transformative experience with integrative approaches to metastatic kidney cancer. That experience inspires her work as president of the Scheidel Foundation and as volunteer staff at CancerChoices. She previously worked with the US Agency for International Development and Family Health International among other roles. She received her graduate degree in international development from Georgetown University, a graduate certificate in nonprofit management from George Mason University, and a Bachelor of Arts from Gettysburg College.

Miki Scheidel Co-Founder and Creative Director

Erin Price, MSW, LICSW, OSW-C

Director of Young Adult and Psychosocial Support Programs, Smith Center for Healing and the Arts
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Erin Price, MSW, LICSW, OSW-C, was driven to help others facing cancer shortly after her own breast cancer diagnosis in 2010 at the age of 27. Erin currently serves as the Young Adult and Psychosocial Support Programs Director at Smith Center for Healing and the Arts in Washington, DC, where she manages various programs and serves as a therapist and integrative patient navigator. Her areas of expertise include cancer survivorship, adolescent and young adult (AYA) cancer, and integrative cancer care. She is also a graduate of the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s Project LEAD scientific research advocacy training, an experienced grant reviewer for the Department of Defense Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program, and a member of the Georgetown Breast Cancer Advocates. She has presented at several national conferences and been published in peer-reviewed journals. In 2021, she was recognized as a 40 Under 40 Rising Star and Emerging Leader in Cancer.

Erin Price, MSW, LICSW, OSW-C Director of Young Adult and Psychosocial Support Programs, Smith Center for Healing and the Arts

Last update: June 17, 2022

CancerChoices provides information about integrative cancer care. We review complementary therapies and self-care practices to help patients and professionals explore and integrate the best combination of conventional and complementary therapies and practices for each person.

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