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A New Study Reveals Cancer Puts People at Greater Risk for Bankruptcy

Friday, May 24, 2013

At the National Cancer Survivors Day Foundation, we know that the negative effects of cancer reach far beyond the physical side effects of treatment. Now, a new study from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has revealed that people diagnosed with cancer are more than two-and-a-half times more likely to declare bankruptcy than those without cancer. The researchers also found that younger cancer survivors had two- to five-fold higher bankruptcy rates than those who were diagnosed later in life, and that overall bankruptcy filings increased as time passed following diagnosis.

The link between high medical expenses and increased likelihood of bankruptcy filing has been well documented. However, this new study, which focuses solely on cancer survivors, shows that there may be more to the cancer—bankruptcy link than just costly medical bills.

“This study found strong evidence of a link between cancer diagnosis and increased risk of bankruptcy,” the researchers stated. “Although the risk of bankruptcy for cancer patients is relatively low in absolute terms, bankruptcy represents an extreme manifestation of what is probably a larger picture of economic hardship for cancer patients. Our study thus raises important questions about the factors underlying the relationship between cancer and financial hardship.”

Greatest Bankruptcy Risk for Younger Adult Cancer Survivors

Compared to cancer survivors who did not file for bankruptcy, those who did were more likely to be younger, female, and nonwhite. The youngest age groups had up to 10 times the bankruptcy rate as the older age groups. The researchers note that because cancer is generally a sudden and unexpected event, the risk of bankruptcy is influenced by factors such as debt load before diagnosis, assets, whether or not a person has health or disability insurance, number of dependent children, and incomes of others in the household at the time of the cancer diagnosis.

“The youngest groups in the study were diagnosed at a time when their debt-to-income ratios are typically highest — often unavoidably, because they are paying off student loans, purchasing a home, or starting a business,” the researchers stated. “All working-age people who develop cancer face loss of income and, in many cases, loss of employer-sponsored insurance, both of which can be devastating for households in which the patient is the primary wage earner.”

In contrast, people age 65 or older generally have Medicare insurance and Social Security benefits. These older people are likely to have more assets and possibly more income than working-age people are. “However, it is likely that having stable insurance (specifically, coverage not tied to employment) plays a major role in mitigating the risk of bankruptcy for those over age sixty-five,” the researchers stated.

Cancer has many long-term physical, emotional, and –as this study shows – financial side effects. We’re glad researchers are beginning to look at the many different quality of life issues cancer survivors often face, and we hope it leads to better understanding of and more resources for these survivorship issues.

What other survivorship issues would you like to see researchers study? Does anyone have a personal story of financial difficulty due to cancer diagnosis? What are some things that can be done to reduce the financial impact of cancer on individuals and families?