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Cancer patients face grave financial barriers to care: ‘There is this dramatic loss of income’

Experts spoke about breaking down barriers to cancer care in underserved communities at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference, April 26.
Stuart Isett—Fortune

After receiving a cancer diagnosis, many people don’t know where to turn. There’s the uncertainty of what comes next coupled with the fear of how to manage in the meantime. And the diagnosis itself is often only one piece of a complex puzzle.  

For many cancer patients, access to quality care and education is out of reach. The financial barriers—and fear of seeking help because of them—can keep people away from the care they need. One study found even after treatment, nearly 50% of cancer survivors faced medical debt associated with their care, with the vast majority unsure how they will afford future care. 

“There is this dramatic loss of income, and if you are a single parent with cancer or with a child with cancer, your income is zero,” said Carla Tardif, CEO of Family Reach, at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference in Marina Del Rey, Calif., last week. “Families really quickly get turned upside down.” 

Health equity is at the forefront of addressing cancer—the second leading cause of death nationwide; one-third of cancer deaths in this country could be prevented by removing socioeconomic barriers to care, according to the American Association for Cancer Research. 

“Your cancer affects your finances,” Tardif said. “Your finances dramatically affect your cancer.” 

Health systems must address the historic distrust in providers, by prioritizing culturally competent care and assessing the additional barriers people face post diagnosis, she adds. Mitigating systemic barriers around housing, hunger, and trust are imperative, Tardif said, whose company Family Reach intervenes to address the social determinants of health through housing and meal service partnerships. 

“The families that come to us, they are desperate,” she said. “They are living in their car.” 

The health sector has witnessed tremendous progress in cancer research and treatment in the past few decades, but until people have access, “we aren’t winning the war against cancer,” Tardif said. 

“When you think about the hope that comes from cancer treatment, we now know the importance of research and subspecialty care,” said Robert Stone, CEO of City of Hope, a National Cancer Institute–designated comprehensive cancer center with sites across the U.S. “The key is making that available for the four out of every five cancer patients who can’t make their way to an NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center.” 

This means normalizing routine screening, providing comprehensive education on treatment plans and risk factors, and addressing social determinants of health disproportionately impacting minority communities.  

There is also a need to address psychological barriers delaying screenings and, therefore, cancer treatments owing to stigma. Colon cancer is one prime example, said Dr. Folasade May, associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. 

“We suffer because we have this disease that’s highly preventable, because colonoscopies work, but there is so much stigma even about talking about it that no one wants to participate,” said May. For example, people often assume colorectal cancer is an old person’s disease, she added. Following the death of Chadwick Boseman from colon cancer at age 43, May hopes more people feel educated about the need for preventative screening. 

The barriers to comprehensive cancer care are far reaching, but intervening at the forefront and building trust between providers and patients is the way forward, the panelists say. 

“We are here to connect the dots so that you have a financial plan, a financial care team in addition to your medical care team, and that’s how we will increase cancer survival,” Tardif said. 

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