Cancer Survivors Face Lasting Financial Struggles Long After Treatment Ends, New Study Reports

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We hope these findings help cancer patients and their loved ones prepare for and overcome the emotional and financial hurdles of battling this disease.

—Barbara Stewart

The majority (62%) of America’s middle-income cancer survivors say they were not financially prepared for cancer diagnosis and treatment, according to a new study released by the Washington National Institute for Wellness Solutions (IWS).

The study, “Insights from Survivors: Managing the Personal, Emotional, and Financial Impact of Cancer,” surveyed 400 Americans.

Study Details

The study population included individuals who were 25 to 65 years at the time of diagnosis and had received radiation or chemotherapy in the past 10 years.  Two-thirds of respondents (65%), all with an annual household income between $35,000 and $100,000, did not have sufficient household income to cover treatment-related expenses and incurred debt.  After treatment, 30% reported debt of $10,000 or more; 15% reported debt of $20,000 or more; 11% of those younger than 50, or who were diagnosed with Stage III or IV cancer, incurred more than $40,000 in debt.

More than half of survivors (57%) felt that at least one aspect of their treatment cost more than they expected.  They were also surprised by the extent of the direct and indirect expenses not covered by medical insurance.

Funding Treatment

More than half of the respondents (55%) withdrew from personal savings or investment accounts to finance treatment. Credit cards were used by nearly half of the respondents (46%).  Although nearly half (46%) of all cancer patients in the United States are working age (younger than 65), younger survivors were markedly less prepared.  Survivors younger than 50 were three times more likely to borrow money from friends and family (27% vs 8%), or withdraw from their 401(k), than their older counterparts (24% vs  9%).

Making Diagnosis and Treatment a Priority

More than four in 10 survivors (44%) advise others facing cancer to be proactive about their treatment. They recommend getting involved by doing research, paying attention to warning signs, and discussing treatment with a doctor.

“Those battling cancer need to make their diagnosis and treatment a priority,” said Barbara Stewart, President of Washington National.  “Selecting the right facility, prioritizing and following treatment protocols, and seeking outside support are key for good outcomes.”

A broad range of support systems are available to those who are facing cancer, but even so, the study finds that many personal, financial, and emotional needs go unmet. One in four (25%) wished they could have talked more to other survivors through support groups. Among the support services the survivors recommended are:

Services of the American Cancer Society (ACS), including ACS Hope Club, ACS Reach to Recovery program and ACS Hope Lodge; Look Good Feel Better; Grocery delivery services, and online shopping, such as

Social media is a tool used by more than one-quarter of survivors (28%) to find and share information. Among those who used social media, Facebook was most popular, chosen by three-fourths (74%) of social media users.

Lasting impact

The long-term challenges of physical and financial recovery after cancer treatment are undeniable: 44% report less physical strength; 31% are less financially secure; 24% feel their career prospects are worse.

However, nearly 9 in 10 (85%) cancer survivors look back on their experience and recognize that at least one aspect of life has actually improved.  And, across all ages, genders, and cancer stages, nearly one-half of survivors (45%) ranked living a healthy lifestyle a top priority following treatment, up from one-fourth (28%) before diagnosis.

“This study provides valuable insight from cancer survivors about all stages of diagnosis and treatment,” Ms. Stewart added. “We hope these findings help cancer patients and their loved ones prepare for and overcome the emotional and financial hurdles of battling this disease.”

Insights from Survivors: Managing the Personal, Emotional and Financial Impact of Cancer is part of a series of studies commissioned by the Washington National Institute for Wellness Solutions. It was conducted in May 2014 by Zeldis Research, an independent research firm. The full report can be viewed at