Cost of cancer more toxic than the cancer itself

We sat down with Dave Comer almost exactly a year after his first interview with us in February of 2011. On the left, when he was at a low point. The right, a much better place in life.

More than one point five million people were diagnosed with cancer in the U.S. last year. Today, 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.

Dave Comer's story


Dave Comer

, known to many people as "the Chickenman," knows the pain and strain of cancer and the cost it takes to kick it in the rear. In November of 2010 - on his birthday, no less - he was diagnosed with esophageal and stomach cancer. He immediately started treatment. Less than two years later, he's spent a quarter million dollars out of pocket for medical bills. He's thankful his insurance has taken on the rest.

"You have a disease that could kill you, and then that's weighing on your head to begin with. And all of a sudden, you're looking at everything you've ever worked your whole life for, an in my case, could be gone," Comer said. "Your wife or children come in saying, we just got a bill for $100,000 we have to pay for, and you're going, 'what?!'"

Comer's spent the last two years enduring chemo and other experimental drugs, including a surgery that cost close to a quarter million dollars out of pocket. That's with insurance.

"You could be in debt so high, it could take the rest of your life to get out of it, and then what does your family do?" Comer said.

In recent years, many families living with cancer have filed for personal bankruptcy. In fact, medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy in the US.

"One, you can't work anymore. So you go on your medical leave, and once your medical leave runs up, then you're uninsured. And that hits a lot of people real heavy," Comer said.

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.

"Some people don't know how to fight and others just give up, but I think you need to just keep going," Comer said. "It's going to get better. There's laws out there and people working on things that are going to change this. If we can get insurance companies together with the medical staff, and regulations put in place, I think we can get some things done, but when everyone's going off helter skelter, it's not going to get done, not going to get done at all."

Comer says he's now in "remission," but will continue to get bi-annual treatments.

Why have costs escalated so much?

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

According to the Associated Press, 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 total cost of treating cancer in the U.S. 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 2001-2006, 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.

Who can help?

Comer says you may have to do some digging of your own on this one. Talk to your doctors. They'll be able to direct you to financial assistance programs that could help you, as well as financial counselors and testing facilities that may give you experimental drugs for a lower cost.

"We diagnose about 560 new cases of cancer here at Blessing and that's on the rise," Bonnie Kleissle with Blessing's Cancer Center said.

Both Quincy Medical Group and Blessing Health System have resources to help their patients find what's best for them financially.

"We have a great many people that are diagnosed and having difficulty paying for their treatment today," Kleissle said.

The Blessing Financial Program lets patients know about their costs before care. You can also find a helpful link online, Cancer Support Community, where you'll find a tool kit for cancer costs.

Kleissle says the best way to fight cancer and the bills that follow is early detection.

"It goes back to the early screening and pre-tests, so I want you all to think about that, because that's where the success lies in beating cancer and managing it in today's world," Kleissle said.

(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)