More Cancer Patients Can't Afford Care

Cancer patient Keith Blessington
Cancer patient Keith Blessington went more than $70,000 in to debt to pay for his care, despite being insured. Now he's facing the prospect of losing his home.

New statistics point to one group that's suffering more than most in this ailing economy: cancer patients. More than 1 million cancer survivors are foregoing cancer care because of cost, according to American Association for Cancer Research.

More than 680,000 new cancer cases were diagnosed last year. And while an estimated 70 percent of patients do have health insurance, a new report finds that even insured patients are spiraling into debt or having to choose between paying for necessities like food and shelter and paying for their cancer care, reports CBS News' medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook.

Take Keith Blessington. Whether snowshoeing or hiking in the New Hampshire woods, Blessington always felt great. Then he was laid off. And just as his health care benefits were about to run out, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer.

"They said, 'Well we can't insure you, it's as simple as that,'" Blessington said.

Blessington did find coverage - for double what he had been paying.

Insurance covered most of his medical bills, which totaled more than $200,000. But he still ended up more than $70,000 in debt, and no longer able to afford the home he shares with his ailing mother.

"For a variety of reasons, people with cancer fall through the cracks and it just doesn't work," said Drew Altman, CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

"A growing number of cancer deaths directly attributable to lack of adequate insurance to get the care you need is growing with every passing day," said Dr. John Seffrin, CEO of the American Cancer Society.

The total cost of cancer care can range from more than $2,000 to more than $7,000 per patient each month.

"One in five cancer patients will spend virtually all their life savings to get the treatment they need," Seffrin said.

"I'm afraid I'll die," said Denise Prosser. The 39-year-old can no longer afford to treat her thyroid cancer, since her husband lost his job and health insurance.

She doesn't qualify for Medicare ("not disabled enough") or Medicaid (her husband makes too much in unemployment). She's not sick enough for the emergency room - yet.

The Prossers are scrambling to find charitable care.

Blessington recently learned that the treatments that have bankrupted him have eradicated his cancer.

Which - at least for now - means he can get back to work, and try to save his home from foreclosure.

  • Jon Lapook
    Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the chief medical correspondent for CBS News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook