CHICAGO (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) – Women who have treatment for breast cancer seldom talk about the costs of care with their medical team, but a study out of Duke University has found that more than one-third reported having a financial burden from their breast cancer treatment, even among women with health insurance, according to a report presented at the Society of Surgical Oncology Annual Cancer Symposium.

“The financial harm associated with cancer treatment is now known as ‘financial toxicity,’ ” Rachel A. Greenup, MD , MPH, said in reporting the results of an 88-item survey completed by 654 adult women who had treatment for breast cancer. The women were recruited through the Army of Women of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation and The Sister’s Network of North Carolina, an African-American breast cancer survivors’ organization.

Overall, 69% of survey respondents had private insurance and 26% had Medicare. Of the patients surveyed, 94% had breast cancer surgery: 40.6% lumpectomy, 23.7% mastectomy, and 29.7% bilateral mastectomy; 34% also had breast reconstruction. Among those surveyed, 43% reported considering costs in their treatment decision. Of these, 29% considered costs when making surgical treatment decisions, including 14% who reported that costs were “extremely” important.

Despite the high levels of insurance coverage, 35% of the study participants reported a financial burden resulting from cancer treatment, ranging from “somewhat” burdensome to “catastrophic.” The median out-of-pocket cost for the study participants was $4,000, and 5% exceeded $40,000 in such costs, Dr. Greenup said. “The risk of financial harm and increased out-of-pocket costs to patients differed by surgery type,” with higher financial burdens seen in women who underwent bilateral mastectomy.

Cost was one of many factors survey participants reported considering when making surgical treatment decisions, but the most important factors were the opinions and advice of the medical team and the individual patient’s fear of recurrence. However, in lower-income women, cost factored more significantly in decision making. “In a subset of women who reported an annual income of $45,000 a year or less, cost of treatment gained importance and, interestingly, became more important than many variables we routinely discuss – for example, appearance of the breast, sexuality, avoiding radiation, and breast preservation,” Dr. Greenup said. “An income of $74,000 a year was the tipping point at which women reported incorporating costs into their cancer treatment decisions.”

She added that younger, minority women who did not have Medicare coverage were more likely to consider costs in breast cancer treatment decisions.

Most women surveyed (79%) said they preferred to know their out-of-pocket costs before they begin treatment, Dr. Greenup said, “and 40% believed that we as physicians should be considering out-of-pocket costs while making medical decisions.” However, 78% of those surveyed said they never discussed costs with their cancer team – despite American Society of Clinical Oncologists guidelines, she pointed out – and 35% said their treatment costs were higher than expected.

Dr. Greenup described the study population as “well engaged … with good insurance and strong educational background that likely does not reflect the general population.” The results may not be generalizable. “We expect that in a general cohort of women, our findings would be even more exaggerated,” she said.

The study points out the need to better understand how cost transparency may affect breast cancer treatment decisions, Dr. Greenup said. “As eligible women with breast cancer choose between surgical options, it’s important that we consider the potential risk of financial harm as we guide them through these difficult treatment decisions,” she said.

Dr. Greenup and her study coauthors reported having no financial disclosures.

SOURCE: Greenup RA. SSO 2018, Abstract No. 24 .