They Beat Cancer, But Can They Beat the Medical Debt?

Cancer survivors diagnosed at a young age or during later stages of their diseases were much more likely to need additional financial support during treatment, according to a new report from the Washington National Institute for Wellness Solutions. About a third (32%) of all survivors said they needed help with money during treatment.

Simply put: Treating cancer is extremely expensive.

The National Institutes of Health puts the annual cost of cancer in the U.S. at $216.6 billion, and debt for cancer survivors can easily reach beyond $10,000 per patient.

A majority of survivors (62%) incurred medical debt as a result of treatment. Compare that to the average 5-year survival rate of cancer patients: 68% in 2009. As good as the odds are you’ll survive your disease, you’re nearly as likely to fall into debt because of it.

Survivors diagnosed before age 50 face an exceptional financial burden: More than half of them (53%) needed financial assistance to access treatment. People diagnosed with Stage III or Stage IV cancers faced similar struggles, as 45% of those survivors needed financial help, as well.

This is perhaps the most striking financial statistic from the Institute for Wellness Solutions report: 65% of survivors said every aspect of their treatment cost more than expected. Most people aren’t emotionally prepared for the shock of a cancer diagnosis, let alone financially equipped to handle it. A third of survivors end up with medical debt loads exceeding $10,000.

Medical expenses — whether or not they have anything to do with cancer — are a heavy burden for Americans. More than a quarter of U.S. families reported having had trouble paying a medical bill, according to the 2012 National Health Interview Survey, and 16.5% of families said they had struggled to repay medical debt within the last 12 months. That debt isn’t necessarily related to serious diseases, and having insurance doesn’t mitigate the risk of falling into debt: studies show 75% of people who filed for bankruptcy because of medical debt had insurance.

So what does this mean for you? You can’t predict the future, so you have no idea if you’ll have massive medical expenses ahead of you (cancer-related or not), but keep in mind that most people go through at least one emergency in their lifetimes, so everyone should prioritize saving for one. Things like unexpected medical conditions are one of the many reasons people build emergency funds, because the failure to do so almost certainly means dealing with costly debt at some point. That debt can ravage your credit standing and derail your life plans for years, not to mention the emotional toll of dealing with debt (on top of the stress of struggling with illness in the first place). You can see how your debt is impacting your credit scores for free on

If you don’t have an emergency fund, it’s easy to get started by setting small goals. Even if you’re already dealing with debt, you shouldn’t ignore the importance of savings — it can be difficult to escape debt if you fail to save.

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