The heavy price tag of breast cancer treatment: practical tips to alleviate financial stress



Published Jul 7, 2023


According to the 2019 National Cancer Registry (NCR), breast cancer is one of the most prevalent types of cancer in South African women of all races, with a lifetime risk of 1 in 27.

Although the likelihood of developing breast cancer rises with age, many women under the age of 40 are diagnosed with the disease.

The NCR's statistics also showed that 16% of cancer fatalities are related to breast cancer and that 19.4 million women aged 15 and older are at risk of developing the disease.

The primary cause of breast cancer in women is persistent exposure of the breast cells to the growth-stimulating actions of the female hormones progesterone and oestrogen.

However, early detection of the disease can result in effective treatment and a positive prognosis, with about 90% of patients surviving for many years after diagnosis when breast cancer is detected at the early stages.

Hence, women aged 45 and older are advised to do a yearly mammogram.

Turnberry CEO Tony Singleton explained that gap cover makes a significant difference, as it is a policy that covers predominantly in-hospital events and pays for the shortfall between what medical specialists charge and what the medical aid scheme will pay out.

He added: “most families do not have tens of thousands of rands lying around in case of a cancer diagnosis, so it is important to consult a financial advisor to ensure that you can supplement your medical aid cover with a gap policy that will assist with the payment of specialists’ fees, co-payments and any sub-limit that you may be exposed to”.

Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming, and along with the emotional and physical challenges, it is essential to also consider the potential financial burden.

Breast cancer treatment comes with a heavy price tag that can take a toll on your finances.

Singleton said like many other cancer treatments, breast cancer treatment can be extremely costly.

Treatment costs can range from R10 000 to R450 000 per year, depending on when the cancer is diagnosed, and which treatments are required.

Depending on a patient’s medical aid scheme and plan type, they could be expected to cover some expenses of cancer treatment out of their own pocket.

Why is cancer diagnosis so expensive?

Breast cancer treatment involves a range of expenses, including surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and hormone therapy.

It is crucial to familiarise yourself with each type of treatment and its associated costs. Consider the expenses of medications, hospital stays, doctor visits, lab tests, imaging and any follow-up care required.

Financial assistance programmes:

Take advantage of financial assistance programs specifically designed to support individuals battling breast cancer.

These programs can offer financial aid for medication costs, treatment-related expenses, transportation, and supportive care services. Seek out government programs, non-profit organisations, and pharmaceutical assistance programs that provide financial assistance to breast cancer patients.

Negotiating medical bills:

Consider seeking assistance from medical billing advocates who can assist in negotiating and reducing medical bills.

Research and development:

Developing new drugs and treatment methods involves significant investment in research, clinical trials, and regulatory approvals. These costs are often passed on to patients.

Advanced technology and equipment:

Cancer treatment often requires the use of advanced technology, such as radiation therapy machines, MRI scanners, and surgical equipment. These technologies are expensive to acquire and maintain, which adds to the overall treatment cost.

Complex treatment plans:

Cancer treatment typically involves a multidisciplinary approach, including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and other specialised treatments. Co-ordinating and administering these various treatments can be complex and costly.

Supportive care:

In addition to the primary treatment, patients may require supportive care services, such as counselling, pain management, rehabilitation, and palliative care. These services also contribute to the overall cost.

In South Africa, the high cost of medical treatment, including cancer treatment, can lead to financial strain and potential bankruptcy for individuals and families.

The country’s healthcare system faces various challenges, including a high burden of disease, limited access to affordable healthcare, and disparities in health-care coverage.