Actress Kelly Preston’s death at age 57 from breast cancer is a reminder that this common cancer takes many lives too soon — and, unfortunately, getting treatment can be a financial obstacle for many.
Preston was known for roles in films including “Jerry Maguire” and 1988’s “Twins.” She was married to actor John Travolta and died after living with the disease for two years. The couple had two children, Ella Bleu and Benjamin, as well as a son, Jett, who died at age 16 in 2009, the Associated Press reported.
“I have never met anyone as courageous, strong, beautiful and loving as you,” Ella Travolta wrote in a tribute to her mom on Instagram FB, -2.47% .
Preston is one of an estimated 42,170 women in the U.S. who will die from breast cancer this year, according to the American Cancer Society. The disease is the most common type of cancer in U.S. women after skin cancer, and the second leading cause of cancer death after lung cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
“While we have made significant progress in successfully treating breast cancer, approximately 20% of patients will develop distant metastatic disease,” said William G. Cance, the chief medical and scientific officer at the American Cancer Society. “Kelly Preston’s death underscores our need for better treatment for metastatic breast cancer.”
Unfortunately, that treatment can be expensive, even for patients with robust health insurance. About one in four cancer patients have to borrow money, go into debt or file for bankruptcy to pay for treatment, a 2019 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found.
“Cancer and its treatment are associated with many costs for patients and their families, including out-of-pocket costs for medical care and lost income due to time away from work for patients and caregivers,” said Robin Yabroff, the senior scientific director of health services research at the American Cancer Society. “These costs can result in financial strain, medical debt, and depletion of assets for patients and their families.”
Annualized medical costs associated with breast cancer are about $34,000 in the first year after diagnosis, Yabroff said. Nationally, about $25.8 billion was spent on medical care for patients with breast cancer in 2015. “This estimate does not include costs associated with lost productivity, which can be substantial,” she added.
Because of the disease’s complexity, it’s difficult to cite an exact figure for the average cost of breast cancer treatment, said Amanda DeBard, spokeswoman for the Susan G. Komen organization, a nonprofit that raises money for breast cancer research and provides financial assistance to patients. “Some patients may only require surgery, whereas others might require intensive treatment which can run over $10,000 per month,” DeBard told MarketWatch.
Data from the National Cancer Institute found the average cost for female patients in 2015 was $23,078 for initial treatment and $2,207 for continuing treatment, USA Today reported. Even patients themselves sometimes have a difficult time getting information on the costs of various surgeries.
There are also “hidden costs” on top of medical expenses, including gas to and from appointments, child-care expenses for patients who are parents, and hotel stays for patients who have to travel far for treatment, DeBard added. Komen runs a helpline that patients can call for support and information about financial assistance.
It’s common for metastatic breast cancer patients and low-income patients to experience “financial toxicity,” meaning severe financial burdens paying for treatment, a 2019 study suggested.
The financial hardship for women of color can be worse: Black women who are diagnosed with breast cancer experience significantly greater financial strain than white women, and that may play a role in Black women dying from breast cancer at higher rates, a 2018 study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found.
Some patients use credit cards or retirement savings to fund treatment, and 41% said they skipped treatment or medication to save money, according to a 2018 survey by The Pink Fund, a nonprofit that helps breast cancer patients pay for treatment.
What’s worse: Screening can be cost-prohibitive too. While the Affordable Care Act provides free mammograms for women age 40 and over every one or two years, some patients wind up with surprise mammogram bills after their doctors send them for further testing. And the national median cost of a mammogram without insurance was $243 as of 2016.
Celebrity deaths from cancer capture public attention, and they can be moments for learning more about the disease, noted Molly MacDonald, founder and CEO of The Pink Fund.
“Every single day 1,400 women lose their lives to breast cancer,” McDonald told MarketWatch, referring to worldwide statistics. “We were so sorry to learn of the death of Kelly Preston. It might be important to other women to understand more about her disease. Did she carry the [BRCA] gene? At what stage was she diagnosed? Is there anything we can learn about her illness that might encourage women to get genetic profiling, perform monthly breast exams and get an annual mammogram?”