By heatherericksonauthor.comThe Erickson Family

Debt: The Unexpected Toll of Cancer

Credit Card Debt

Debt: The Unexpected Toll of Cancer

Many people are trying to figure out how to pay off their Christmas credit card debt. But cancer patients and their families can’t plan to pay off their debt with debt a tax return.

A study of 9.5 million newly diagnosed cancer patients from 2000–2012 found that 42.4% had depleted their entire life’s assets after two years. The odds were worse for patients with more aggressive cancer, cancer requiring continued treatment, as well as other demographic and socioeconomic factors.[1]

Medical Expenses

There are many reasons why a cancer diagnosis is one of the worst things that can happen to your finances. Topping the list are costly medical expenses. 62% of cancer patients report being in debt due to their treatment.[2]

Many treatments are out of network. If you have the good fortune of living longer than expected, your medical expenses can surpass your insurance policy’s lifetime limit. Often there are specific tests or procedures such as PET scans that are covered a limited number of times in a person’s life. If you have recurring cancer, you may need to go into debt—or go without necessary tests that can determine the course of your treatment.

Lost Income

Cancer treatment dramatically impacts a patient’s health and schedule. It can be challenging to predict when side effects will render you unable to perform your job. The loss of your job may also impact your health insurance.

For a caregiving spouse, it isn’t a lot easier. They often must juggle the needs of children while taking the patient to appointments and managing the household roles that the patient once did. All of this can take a toll on them. Their work and income level will often suffer.

Effects of Financial Strain

There are so many effects of financial toxicity due to a cancer diagnosis:

  • On a 2012 Livestrong survey of 4,719 cancer survivors, 1/3 had gone into debt, and 3% had filed for bankruptcy. In addition, 55% of those debtors had accrued at least $10,000 in debt.[3]
  • Psychological distress due to financial strain and costs of cancer care
  • Some patients will delay or skip physician visits to reduce the cost of copayments
  • Many patients take less medication to try to “spread it out” or stop taking it all together because they can’t afford it

Some Solutions to Debt


There are several types of bankruptcy with varying consequences, including years of bad credit. This can make it challenging to buy a larger ticket item such as a car and nearly impossible to purchase a home.

There are also several types of debt that bankruptcy can’t eliminate:

  • Student loan debt
  • Court-ordered alimony or child support
  • Court fines and penalties
  • Reaffirmed debt
  • A federal tax lien for taxes owed to the U.S. government
  • Government fines or penalties

Debt Consolidation

Debt consolidation is when you take out one loan to pay off several other higher-interest loans. This can simplify your payments and even lower your interest rates. Find out more.

A Debt Management Plan

A debt management plan is a type of repayment plan that offers several benefits, including professional advice from a credit counselor who can help you put your plan together, often for free. The counselor can then work with your creditors to lower your monthly payments and waive previously charged fees. They may also be able to negotiate lower interest rates. All these things will reduce your debt much faster.

And to simplify things, you can make one monthly payment rather than several to multiple creditors. Best of all, the calls from debt collectors will finally die down.

There are some fees involved, and you will have to close any credit cards included in the debt management plan, but this is one option available to you.

Getting Back on Your Feet

You may also be interested in reading Facing Cancer With Grace’s Article “7 Strategies to Finance Your Cancer Treatment.” Dealing with the debt that can accumulate while undergoing treatment is stressful. Hopefully, one of these options will help you get back on your feet again, financially.



[1] Gilligan, Adrienne M, et al. “Death or Debt? National Estimates of Financial Toxicity in Persons with Newly-Diagnosed Cancer.” The American Journal of Medicine, vol. 131, no. 10, ser. E5, 12 June 2018, pp. 1187–1199. E5, doi: Accessed 3 Jan. 2022.

[2] Cheryl K. Altice, Matthew P. Banegas, Reginald D. Tucker-Seeley, K. Robin Yabroff, Financial Hardships Experienced by Cancer Survivors: A Systematic Review, JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Volume 109, Issue 2, February 2017, djw205,

[3] For Working-Age Cancer Survivors, Medical Debt And Bankruptcy Create Financial Hardships

Matthew P. Banegas, Gery P. Guy, Jr., Janet S. de Moor, Donatus U. Ekwueme, Katherine S. Virgo, Erin E. Kent, Stephanie Nutt, Zhiyuan Zheng, Ruth Rechis, and K. Robin Yabroff Health Affairs 2016 35:1, 54-61

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