Overwhelming Cancer Costs Can Cause Post-Traumatic Stress

Jason M. Broderick @jasoncology
Published: Thursday, Jun 03, 2010

A struggle with cancer is often referred to as a battle. Now, a study reveals patients with cancer and caregivers even experience a condition common to soldiers, post-traumatic stress syndrome. The disorder does not arise from cancer’s primary theater of conflict, the tumor site, but rather from a secondary battlefield, the patient’s wallet. The report, issued by the nonprofit Cancer Support Community (CSC), in conjunction with biotech company Genentech Inc, found the financial burden of cancer costs leaves patients and caregivers vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Eighty-one percent of patients and 72% of caregivers surveyed reported “moderate to severe” levels of stress due to financial issues.

According to Joanne S. Buzaglo, PhD, senior director of research at CSC, researchers were surprised by the severity of the condition. “It is hard to imagine, but the levels of post-traumatic stress reported were even greater than that of those who witnessed the terrorist attacks in New York City on September 11 and akin to that of underprivileged, displaced survivors of Hurricane Katrina.”

The study, entitled “Evaluation of the Challenges and Barriers to Accessing Financial Support for Cancer Patient Treatment,” differed from previous research in that it used a standardized measure to analyze symptoms of post-traumatic stress related to cancer costs. Researchers surveyed an ethnically diverse group of 105 patients and caregivers. Over half of the respondents were employed. Twenty-five percent of patients and 18% of caregivers surveyed had household incomes of  <$20,000/y. Ninety-one percent of patients had insurance coverage, with 19% using Medicare or Medicaid. 

For several individuals, the distress arose from an inability to afford medical bills totaling thousands of dollars. Others reported insurance coverage issues, including calendar-year limitations on appointments with specialists. For most, attempting to solve the fiscal crisis only worsened the despair. Many patients began sacrificing their health, skipping medication doses, or selecting inferior, less expensive treatments. Others depleted savings, borrowed money from family or friends, or started working a second job. 

As their fiscal problems mounted and stress levels rose, respondents experienced several barriers to needed assistance. Approximately 50% of patients lacked the funds for mental health support. Nearly half of patients were unaware of financial assistance programs, while others feared they would not qualify for aid or were unwilling to face financial scrutiny. Some were simply too exhausted and overwhelmed from their cancer treatment to pursue assistance. “Those with the greatest economic need often fail to seek out assistance due to the distress they are experiencing,” said Buzaglo.

Those who did seek financial assistance found the Internet and social workers to be the best information sources. Some patients (34%) were enrolled in pharmaceutical or copay assistance programs. For more on the study, go to www.thewellnesscommunity.org.

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