Marilynn Marchione

Patti Tyree was afraid that cancer would steal her future. Instead, the cost of treating it has.

She had hoped to buy a small farm with money inherited from her mother. But co-payments for just one $18,000 round of breast chemotherapy and one shot of a nearly $15,000 blood-boosting drug cost her $2,000.

Bills for other treatments are still coming, and almost half of her $25,000 inheritance is gone.

“I supposedly have pretty good insurance,” said Tyree, 57, a recently retired federal worker who lives near Roanoke, Va. “How can anybody afford this?”

Forty years after the National Cancer Act launched the “war on cancer,” the battle is not just finding cures and better treatments but also being able to afford them.

New drugs often cost $100,000 or more a year. Patients are being put on them sooner in the course of their illness and for a longer time — sometimes for the rest of their lives. The latest trend is to use these drugs in combination, guided by genetic tests that allow more personalized treatment but also add to its expense.

It’s not just drugs: Radiation treatment is becoming more high-tech, and each leap in technology has brought a quantum leap in expense. Proton therapy is one example — it costs twice as much as conventional radiation and is attracting prostate cancer patients despite a lack of evidence that it is any better.

The financial strain is showing: Some programs that help people pay their bills have seen a rise in requests, and medical bills are a leading cause of bankruptcies.

“Patients have to pay more for their premiums, more for their co-payments, more for their deductibles. It’s become harder to afford what we have, and what we have is becoming not only more costly but also complex,” said Dr. Michael Hassett, a cancer specialist and policy researcher at Dana-?Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

Insurers also are being squeezed by laws that require coverage and restrict raising premiums. And the burden is growing on Medicare, which in some cases is paying for treatments and tests that have not been shown to benefit patients.

Price of success

Why have costs escalated so much?

To some extent, it’s the price of success.

Cancer deaths have been declining in the United States since the early 1990s. Two out of 3 people now live at least five years after a cancer diagnosis, up from 1 out of 2 in the 1970s, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, doctors who treat the disease. Nine out of 10 women with early-stage breast cancer are alive five years after their diagnosis and are probably cured.

Modern treatments have fewer side effects and allow patients to have a greater quality of life than chemotherapy did in the past. But they are far more toxic financially.

Of the nation’s 10 most expensive medical conditions, cancer has the highest per-person price. The cost of treating cancer in the United States rose from about $95.5 billion in 2000 to $124.6 billion in 2010, the National Cancer Institute estimates. The true tab is higher — the agency bases its estimates on average costs from 2001-06, before many expensive treatments came out.

Cancer costs are projected to reach $158 billion, in 2010 dollars, by the year 2020, because of a growing population of older people who are more likely to develop cancer.

That’s the societal cost. For individual patients, costs can vary widely even for the same drug. Dr. Bruce Roth, a cancer specialist at Washington University in St. Louis, tells of Zytiga, a prostate cancer medicine approved last year. It costs $6,100 a month and insurers differ on how much they cover.

“I’ve had one patient pay $1.50 co-pay a month and another patient be quoted $5,943,” Roth said.

Middle class takes hit

The burden hits hard on the middle class — people too well off for programs that cover the poor but unable to afford what cancer care often costs.

Tyree said the hospital billed her insurer $14,865 for Neulasta, a shot to boost white blood cells and help her tolerate chemotherapy. Several cancer specialists said Neulasta usually costs less than half that, but the charge was $12,000 for Tyree’s friend and blog postings by other cancer patients tell similar stories.

The worst part: A cheaper formulation of Neulasta is available, but many patients aren’t offered that option. There’s even a cheaper way to get Neulasta, but hospitals make a lot of money giving the shot instead of teaching a patient or caregiver how to do it.

Tyree said doctors told her Neulasta was “completely routine and everybody got it.” She had no idea how much she and her insurer would have to pay until the bill came.

A recent American Cancer Society survey found that one-quarter of U.S. cancer patients put off getting a test or treatment because of cost, the group’s chief medical officer, Dr. Otis Brawley, writes in his book How We Do Harm. One out of five survey respondents older than 65 said they had used all or much of their savings on cancer care.