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How to Fight Cancer Without Going Broke

When you or a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, the impact of cancer treatment—and the costs associated with it—immediately becomes a reality. You might be stuck feeling not only fearful and distraught, but also stressed about how to cover the financial costs.

“The impact of cancer has changed over time. Because treatments have gotten better, people are living longer with the disease. The financial burden goes along with that,” says Cindy Rogers, JD, patient assistance coordinator for the Comprehensive Cancer Support Program at Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center’s NC Cancer Hospital.

“The medical expense can be quite high, particularly for those people who are uninsured or underinsured,” Rogers says. “Even for patients who have very good health insurance, they are still paying copayments and deductibles, and sometimes insurance doesn’t cover all of the costs.”

What you pay out of pocket depends on your insurance coverage and the types of treatment you receive, but there might also be other financial resources that can help. At UNC Health Care, your cancer care team, which could include a financial counselor, will keep your financial concerns in mind while always putting your health first.

Here are some tips to help you prepare for the costs of cancer treatment:

1. Take a breath, and think ahead.

First, take care of yourself. Don’t feel like you have to rush to any major decisions. Give yourself a chance to absorb the diagnosis. Then, when you feel ready, think about what you need to do to get better. Cancer diagnoses and treatments are different for everybody, and it will be easier to financially plan once when you understand the kinds of costs you’re facing.

Costs of cancer diagnosis and treatment include:

  • Hospital and clinic visits
  • Medication
  • Tests
  • Surgeries and procedures
  • Home health services

Talk to your doctor to get an idea of what might lie ahead. Of course, you can’t predict everything, but you can do your best with the information you have.

2. Delegate if you wish.

If you want to take hold of your financial matters during your treatment and keep track of everything yourself, great. But consider whether you have a close family member or friend who can help. Your helper can come to appointments with you, take notes and stay organized. This helper can also do several of the steps recommended below so you can stop worrying about money and focus on getting better.

3. Find out your insurance coverage.

Once you understand the type of care and treatment that might be needed, it’s important to find out what costs your insurance will cover and what you’ll have to pay out-of-pocket.

Talk to your insurance company to get a thorough understanding of your policy. This includes finding out what expenses your insurance will reimburse, as well as “preferred” or in-network doctors and hospitals.

Be sure to take notes when talking to your insurance company, and keep detailed records of any doctor visits or care received in case you need them for future reference. Being organized can take some stress out of the process.

If figuring out insurance is confusing, members of your cancer care team can help. Ask your financial counselor, social worker or patient care navigator for assistance.

4. Make use of your resources.

Costs can add up quickly and make it harder to pay for necessities such as food and bills. When it gets overwhelming, remember that you’re not alone. There are people around you who can help, including a financial counselor who can help you tackle the financial burden that may come with cancer treatment.

A financial counselor can help you determine your insurance benefits, explain the billing process, and help you figure out what financial assistance you may qualify for, from government benefits to hospital and foundation assistance.

Additionally, your social worker is there to help ease the anxiety of cancer and its costs. “Our goal is to connect with patients early on,” says Loreal Massiah, a social worker with UNC REX Cancer Care. “We realize that a new cancer diagnosis can have an impact on your emotional well-being. We want to ensure that patients do not feel alone and recognize there is support and resources through our social work team.”

5. Don’t assume you don’t qualify for help.

You won’t know until you ask. Oftentimes, community organizations work with hospitals to provide financial assistance to help patients cover cancer costs.

For example, during the past year, UNC REX Healthcare provided $280,000—sourced from external organizations—to cancer patients who had insurance but still needed financial assistance. Last year at NC Cancer Hospital, philanthropic gifts supporting patient financial assistance provided more than $120,000 for transportation, lodging and household expenses for patients, Rogers says.

Again, your financial counselor, social worker or navigator can help determine whether you qualify for any financial assistance programs.

6. Talk to your care team about your concerns.

At the end of the day, your care team is there to help you not only get better, but also make your cancer journey as manageable as possible. “Whatever it is, we want to be there for them,” says Leticia DeOliveira, a financial counselor with UNC REX Cancer Care. “We love our patients and want them to have the best experience during a difficult time.”

Rogers agrees. “People try really hard to keep their lives normal as best they can while they’re going through cancer treatment,” she says. “What I tell them is, ‘This isn’t a normal time.’ This is a time for patients and caregivers to ask for help and to reach out to others who might be able to offer them the support that they need.”

Talk with your doctor, financial counselor or social worker about questions you might have regarding cancer treatment costs. Don’t be afraid to go back multiple times and ask the same questions if needed.


Learn more about UNC Medical Center’s financial assistance options. There are also support services available through UNC Cancer Care and UNC REX Cancer Care.