The Cost of Treatment

With efforts underway to modify or repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, many cancer patients have spoken out about how affordable health insurance kept them from financial ruin. Magnifying their voices are the surveys and studies that illustrate the devastating monetary toll a cancer diagnosis can bring. Researchers have attempted to capture this distress with the term “financial toxicity,” which places the effect of high treatment costs on quality of life on an equal footing with the toxicity of the treatments themselves.

I explore the ramifications of the costs of cancer treatment in the Winter 2017/2018 issue of Cancer Today.

Here’s an excerpt:

When Candace Henley was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in June 2003, her fear was tempered by the knowledge that she had good health insurance through her job as a bus driver with the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA).12-the-cost-of-treatment-600x200-WEB

At the time, Henley was 36 and raising five daughters, ages 4 to 15, alone. She had pulled off the American dream: a single-family home with a backyard. “We had a great life,” she recalls. “We had great health insurance. [Everything] was as perfect as it could be.” Her problems began when she didn’t have enough savings to stay afloat financially after her cancer treatments left her unable to work.

Every family that faces cancer experiences the shock of learning that the disease is now at their doorstep. But once the diagnosis is made, paths can quickly diverge. The first fork in the road: whether you have health insurance and what type you have. The second: whether you have savings to cover deductibles and other out-of-pocket expenses.

 

Easing the Pain

Pain and cancer frequently go hand in hand. Studies suggest between 20 and 50 percent of cancer patients are experiencing pain at the time of their diagnosis. But while pain is common in cancer patients, it’s not always easy to treat. In fact, pain management can be one of the more challenging areas of cancer care. That’s why I decided to write about it for the spring issue of Cancer Today.

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Easing the Pain

Pain is no gain for patients during or after cancer treatment.

 

In 2009, Mike Richardson was diagnosed with melanoma, an aggressive skin cancer, following removal of a suspicious-looking mole near his collarbone. He had surgery to remove the area around the mole, and all appeared well. But two years later, a biopsy of a swollen lymph node in his neck confirmed the cancer had returned. To corral the cancer, Mike had surgery to remove that node and others nearby, followed by radiation. That’s when the pain began.

“Mike started having general soreness,and then he started to have some pain,and then that pain began to become extreme,” recalls his wife, Eryn Richardson. “It was unbearable. He couldn’t sit or lay down. He would say ‘everything hurts.’ ” The pain would make the 40-mile drivefrom their home in Black Diamond, Alberta, Canada, to the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary seem even longer. Yet when her husband, who died in March 2013, told his oncologist about his discomfort, the physician had little to offer, Richardson says. “Her response was ‘just take some Tylenol or Advil,’ ” she says. “She didn’t seem concerned.”

But to those close to him, it was clear Mike was not doing well. After two months of chemotherapy, the 50-year-old had dropped 50 pounds, and his clothes hung on his 6-foot-plus frame. “He wasn’t the same person,” says Richardson. “He didn’t have a lot of go to him anymore and he didn’t have any drive. And he was frustrated because he didn’t feel his oncologist was taking his pain seriously. His complaints about pain didn’t seem to resonate with her.”

One day, following a routine appointment, a nurse handed Mike a pamphlet about support for cancer patients. Using a phone number on the pamphlet, he scheduled an appointment with a psychologist who had experience with melanoma patients. At the first meeting, the psychologist asked Mike to rate his pain on a scale of one to 10. “When Mike said eight,” says Richardson, “he was flabbergasted.”

The psychologist made an appointment for Mike at the pain clinic at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre for the following day. It took a few more weeks for the specialists there to get Mike on the right dose of the right medications. But after that, his pain was better managed. “He got his appetite back,” says Richardson, “and he began to feel more human.” Still, the Richardsons couldn’t help but wonder: Why had it taken nine months for Mike to get proper pain management?

Read the full article in the Spring 2016  Cancer Today.

Breaking the Blood-Brain Barrier

During the past five years, oncologists have reported an uptick in cancer patients with brain metastases—and it’s not clear why. I explored the impact of this development in my feature story “Breaking the Blood-Brain Barrier” in the Fall 2015 issue of Cancer Today.

Here’s an excerpt:

As the calendar turned to September 2014, Leslie Falduto was feeling at the top of her game. The cancer survivor was running six miles, three days a week. Her oncologist had recently told her she was doing great. And at work, Falduto, a registered nurse, was returning to her favorite post, the neonatal intensive care unit.

BrainMets_175x175Talking about her diagnosis of stage III breast cancer in September 2008 still made her feel anxious. But in the world of cancer, five-year survival is one of those measures that is supposed to make you think, OK, maybe now I can pop the champagne. And Falduto, a mother of two from St. Paul, Texas, has passed that marker the year before. 

But on Sept. 7, when she went to leave the neonatal unit, an odd thing happened. “I couldn’t remember how to open a door,” recalls Falduto, 38. After that, “I couldn’t remember how to walk.” Her right leg started shaking uncontrollably. Then, she passed out. When she awoke, Falduto was in the emergency room, where she was told she’d had a seizure. A neurosurgeon requested an MRI. The scan revealed a tumor the size of a pingpong ball—metastasized breast cancer–deep in her brain.

Read the full story.