Financial burdens of breast cancer

No one is prepared for a breast cancer diagnosis. Among the many things that can be unexpected and difficult to manage is how much medical treatment and care will cost. The financial burden placed on people diagnosed with breast cancer and their caregivers — and the stress that can go along with it — depend on many things, such as:

  • Whether they have insurance, and what type they have
  • Income
  • The stage of the cancer
  • What treatments they choose based on their care team’s recommendations

In addition to the medical costs of breast cancer treatment, there may be costs related to:

  • Traveling to and from treatment
  • Taking time off from work
  • Treating some side effects (like scalp cooling or wigs for hair loss, for example)
  • Child care

Cost of breast cancer treatment

Out of all cancer types, breast cancer has the highest treatment costs. These costs can often be unexpected for people who’ve been diagnosed and their loved ones.

Paying for breast cancer treatment usually includes out-of-pocket expenses: costs people must pay by themselves that are not paid for by health insurance. Out-of-pocket expenses can vary. For example, here are some findings from two separate pieces of research:

  • One recent study found that 12 years after their diagnosis (stages I-III), women had between $1,000 and $3,300 out-of-pocket care costs per year.
  • Another study found that women with employer-sponsored insurance diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer paid $5,800 out of pocket (including premiums, the monthly costs people pay to have health insurance).

People living with metastatic breast cancer can sometimes have costs that are even higher.

Common expenses of a breast cancer diagnosis

Here are some of the most common expenses for people diagnosed with breast cancer:

  • Copayments and insurance premiums
  • Physical and occupational therapy visits
  • Emergency department visits
  • Surgeries and hospitalizations
  • Lab workups
  • X-rays
  • Medicines and therapies
  • Mental health care

The side effect of lymphedema can add more costs. Lymphedema is a condition that can sometimes happen after breast cancer surgery or radiation therapy to the lymph nodes. The disruption to the lymph node area can cause fluid to build up in the hand, arm, underarm, breast, or chest wall on the side of the cancer, resulting in swelling, pain, and reduced movement. The cost of treating lymphedema isn’t always covered by insurance. Treatment may involve specialized physical therapy that can include devices and compression garments to prevent or control swelling, and this can sometimes mean spending extra money for appointments and supplies.   

How to pay for treatment

While the cost of treatment can be a challenge for many people, there are resources available:

  • Your health care team can help. If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, talk with your health care team about potential costs that could be passed on to you. Learning about treatment costs as early as possible can help avoid surprises and help you plan. Ask your doctor, nurse navigator, or hospital social worker about financial counseling and other resources that may be available. Some cancer centers even have staff members whose job it is to help patients plan for costs.
  • We can help. If you are concerned about paying for treatment and other costs, you are not alone. The Living Beyond Breast Cancer Fund is one resource that provides grants for people with breast cancer. For information about the fund, and a list of other programs, visit LBBC’s financial assistance page.
May 1, 2022