Cancer patients driven into bankruptcy far more likely to die

Cancer is often a deadly disease, but its victims are far more likely to die if the cost of their care drives them into bankruptcy, according to a new study by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Cancer patients who filed for bankruptcy were 80 percent more likely to die than those who remained solvent, according to an examination of the medical and financial records of 3,800 cancer patients in Western Washington state diagnosed between 1995 and 2009.

The figures varied by forms of cancer:  Prostate cancer patients who filed for bankruptcy were almost twice as likely to die as those who remain solvent, even though the survival rates for the disease are relatively high. Colorectal cancer patients who filed for bankruptcy were 2.5 times more likely to die.

"That blows away the benefits of many, if not most, treatments," Scott Ramsey, M.D., director of the Hutchinson Institute for Cancer Outcomes Research, said in a statement about the survey findings. "To me, it's one thing if you go bankrupt. Financially, you're really in bad shape but you come out of it with your cancer treated. But if it actually is a double hit, where your very survival is affected? That is profound."

The Hutchinson study did not directly examine what is driving up the mortality rate for bankrupted cancer patients, although Ramsey speculated that the stress of insolvency, coupled with missing rounds of needed care because of an inability to pay, may be the primary drivers.

The financial toll cancer takes on patients are obvious. Even insured patients will often have debt of $100,000 or more. And even if patients no longer have traces of the disease, they can often have ongoing additional costs that will go on for years, if not decades. 

To learn more:
- read the study
- here's the study announcement