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What is financial toxicity, and how does it affect breast cancer patients?

Find out how to cope with financial stress that comes with a major diagnosis


Unfortunately, financial concerns often arise due to high treatment costs and disruptions to work and childcare that occur during and after treatment. Here are some things you can do.

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The stress and worry that comes after a breast cancer diagnosis can be all consuming. Which is why in an ideal world, breast cancer patients would only have to focus on their health during this challenging period. Unfortunately, financial concerns often arise due to high treatment costs and when disruptions to work and childcare occur during and after treatment.

A 2022 report from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that one-third of adults (or a family member living in their household) chose not to pursue a treatment or medical test that their doctor recommended in the prior year due to cost.

This type of behavior is a sign of financial toxicity. Financial toxicity translates into stress, and it’s easy to see how it could magnify for those undergoing very expensive and time-consuming breast cancer treatments.

Keep reading for more insight into what this term means and how breast cancer patients can cope.

What is financial toxicity?

According to Cancer.gov, financial toxicity is “a term used to describe problems a patient has related to the cost of medical care.”

Financial toxicity occurs when a cancer patient experiences financial stress due to the cost of cancer treatment and other associated financial hardships such as not being able to work during treatment. The National Cancer Institute states that there are many studies that indicate that cancer patients and cancer survivors are more likely to struggle with financial toxicity than individuals who haven’t had cancer.

How to overcome financial toxicity

Those struggling with financial toxicity during breast cancer treatment can take steps to get their finances in a place that makes them feel more comfortable and secure so they can focus on taking care of their health.

Review finances fully

When feeling financially stressed (on top of the stress that comes with a breast cancer diagnosis and undergoing treatment), the first step you can take to get some relief is to get a clear picture of where you stand financially.

You can begin your review by looking at how much debt you have and how much savings you have — and pay close attention to your emergency savings fund. That way, you can see how much of a buffer you have to cover medical costs, childcare or other costs associated with your treatment without having to pull money from your long-term savings for retirement, buying a home or paying for a child’s education. The less disruption there is to your long-term financial goals, the easier it will be to focus on your health.

Next, check in on your budget and see if you can refresh it to work better with your current lifestyle. For example, if you need to take time away from work, you may need to cut travel and entertainment expenses from your budget. Or, if you have increased prescription costs, you may want to add that into your budget and adjust your monthly savings goals.

When creating this new budget, you can circle back to any outstanding debts you reviewed earlier and add in minimum monthly debt payments. If you want to pay down your debt faster to help relieve your stress even more, you can increase that portion of your budget.

Not knowing where you stand financially can add extra stress to your plate, so getting a clear look can make it easier to plan how you’ll manage your finances during or after treatment.

Look into payment plans

If you’re struggling to pay for your medical care and treatments, you may end up taking on medical debt. Whenever possible, it’s best to avoid putting that debt on a credit card, as the high interest rates associated with credit cards can make the debt grow quickly. Many healthcare providers offer payment plans that don’t charge interest, which makes it much easier to pay off that debt.

If you received treatment in a hospital, such as having surgery as a part of your treatment plan, you can inquire about any debt-forgiveness programs that they have or discounts they can offer through charitable programs. Many hospitals have programs like this to provide support to patients with lower incomes.

Make early retirement withdrawals

In an ideal world, breast cancer patients would never need to pull from their retirement savings to pay for their life-saving medical treatment. However, if push comes to shove, this option is usually better than borrowing money (which comes with interest charges) to pay for treatment and other medical expenses.

While pulling money out of a retirement savings account can hinder your progress toward saving for retirement, you can make withdrawals from retirement accounts to pay for unreimbursed medical expenses. This means that if your insurance company won’t reimburse you for medical expenses, you won’t face the additional 10 percent penalty tax for withdrawing funds early. It’s worth noting that you can only make this type of early withdrawal if your medical expenses will be more than 10 percent of your adjusted gross income (AGI) for the year. You will also still have to pay income taxes on the withdrawal amount.

Ask for help

No one should have to go through treatment for breast cancer alone, and there are charities that aim to help patients overcome financial toxicity during breast cancer treatment. For example, Project Life helps support patients by providing funding for expenses such as medication copays, deductibles, health insurance premiums and treatment-related transportation costs. It’s worth looking into both local and nationwide charity initiatives that can help provide financial support during your treatment.

Bottom line

Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis and undergoing treatment is stressful enough on its own, but the additional financial stress that can come after a diagnosis can add additional worries to someone’s already very full plate.

Taking time to review your finances, understanding what your payment plan options are and knowing the choices you have, regarding early retirement withdrawals and philanthropic support, can help you navigate financial toxicity, so you can spend more time and energy focusing on taking care of yourself.

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The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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