You’d be hard-pressed to find a woman whose life is untouched by breast cancer. Roughly one in eight American women is expected to develop invasive breast cancer in her lifetime. By the end of 2015, an estimated 231,840 new cases will be diagnosed in American women.
Despite the prevalence of the disease, the typical experience of breast cancer is often presented as two-dimensional and pink-tinged: The commodification and sexualization of breast cancer — like bizarre “Save the Ta-Tas” and “I ♥ Boobies” awareness campaigns that focus on breasts, not people — obscures and often distorts the stark reality of living with the disease. And these campaigns rarely address breast cancer’s staggering financial costs.
While it’s hard to pin down an average cost of having breast cancer, a 2009 study in Pharmacoeconomics estimated that people with breast cancer could pay between $20,000 and $100,000, depending on their health care coverage, length of treatment, type of care, and other variables.
While health insurance is likely to cover most aspects of treatment, there are still significant costs, even without a breast cancer diagnosis. Despite the Affordable Care Act’s coverage of mammograms under preventive health care, mammograms are not covered in all cases. The national median cost of a single mammogram without insurance is $243.
People with a family history of breast cancer, or who are at a higher risk (like Ashkenazi Jewish people), may want to get tested for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes in order to assess their likelihood of developing cancer. (If you’re interested in getting tested, you should first meet with a genetic counselor to assess your individual risk.) These tests can cost $300 to $5,000, and, like mammograms, may or may not be covered as preventive health care by insurance companies.
If you test positive and opt to have a prophylactic mastectomy, a surgical removal of the breasts before any cancer is detected, to prevent cancer from developing in the future, insurance companies are not obligated to cover your procedure in all states (the Affordable Care Act does not mandate it, although some state laws do). This could cost $15,000 to $55,000, not including the cost of breast reconstruction surgery (if your insurance company covers your mastectomy, it must cover reconstruction as well).
If you do have a breast cancer diagnosis, treatment can include chemotherapy, hormonal therapies, gene therapy, radiation, and surgeries like lumpectomies, lymph node removals, and mastectomies. Insurance should cover at least a portion of all of these, but Molly MacDonald, founder and president of The Pink Fund, says that in the case of “some physicians and some treatment, the provider insists on making the copay upfront.” This could mean hundreds or thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket costs, and then a lengthy process of waiting for insurance companies to reimburse you. For some people — like the 62 percent of Americans without emergency funds — this could be an impossible hardship.