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Not only are cancer patients 2½ times as likely to declare bankruptcy as healthy people, but those patients who go bankrupt are 80 percent more likely to die from the disease than other cancer patients, according to studies from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle.

Yousuf Zafar, M.D., doesn’t remember who on his cancer research team at Duke University coined the term “financial toxicity.” With terrifying accuracy, it describes the dire health impact of the soaring costs of cancer treatment. Zafar only knows that once the team began using those words, they quickly spread through oncology circles. It was a diagnostic term whose time had come.

“My initial reaction was that cost is not my problem,” Zafar admits. “We hadn’t focused on how the costs of cancer treatment were impacting patients’ well-being and the quality of their care.”

If someone’s home life or finances are in disarray, a cure may be delayed or impossible. To address that, insurance and health care company Kaiser Permanente has adopted a “level of distress” questionnaire to help caregivers explore 37 possible stressors for patients, including “spiritual/religious concerns” and “sexuality/fertility.” Appropriately, the first eight items raise concerns such as housing, bills, employment and other money issues.

Lyman says he’s “first and foremost an oncologist,” but he has grown “deeply concerned about the barriers and impact of cost on the patients with cancer and on the health care system.” Unfortunately, he points out, he works in a growth industry: “Virtually every one of us will be impacted individually—or in our family, or one of our close friends—by cancer.”

“We’re the victims of our own success,” says Heffern. People who “beat” cancer often face a whole new round of expenses if it returns, and the costs of treatment can double or triple from one diagnosis to the next. Enter the need for a medical-financial adviser.

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