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Sticking To Leukemia Treatment Despite Drug Costs

Posted on May 05, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Todd Gersten, M.D.
Article written by
Elizabeth Wartella, M.P.H.

Treatment for leukemia can be very expensive, but careful compliance to treatment plans is necessary to increase the chances of positive health outcomes and remission from cancer. Leukemia is a complex blood cancer that may require long-term treatment, so out-of-pocket costs for expensive medications and therapies over time could easily become a financial burden.

The cost of treating leukemia is a significant barrier to treatment adherence. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society indicates that among people with cancer enrolled in Medicare Part D, those who have to pay over $2,000 per month for cancer treatments are five times more likely to discontinue treatment compared to people who pay less for treatments.

Despite the high costs of treatment, adhering to a leukemia treatment regimen is extremely important to maximizing the treatment’s effectiveness and improving your health and well-being.

The Cost of Leukemia Treatment

Treating leukemia can be expensive. A study from 2012 found that some prescription drugs for leukemia had a total one-year cost that ranged from $70,000 to $120,000.

Cost is a major reason for nonadherence to treatment for leukemia and other cancers. One study found that people with chronic myeloid leukemia were more likely to discontinue or not take their medication properly if the copayment, or out-of-pocket expense after insurance, was higher.

With some drug costs greater than the average person’s yearly salary, it’s easy to understand why people may abandon prescribed treatments. While insurance and other financial assistance may cover most of the costs, spending thousands of dollars a month on cancer treatment can quickly turn treatment into a financial burden.

MyLeukemiaTeam members often comment about the stress from high costs of leukemia treatments. “Dealing with leukemia is one thing; it's the anxiety of these outrageous costs that really affects me,” one member said.

The cost of leukemia drugs can be prohibitive to using them. “Payment is very confusing. Any hints? Even with insurance, the cost is prohibitive,” said one MyLeukemiaTeam member after being prescribed a new chemotherapy medication.

Why Is Leukemia Treatment So Expensive?

The cost of leukemia treatment depends on factors like the type of leukemia and type of treatment. Factors like the type of leukemia, age, and overall health can inform a physician’s decision on the best course and length of treatment. Treatments for leukemia include a range of intensive therapies, including chemotherapy, radiation, and stem cell or bone marrow transplants.

Leukemia treatments are costly for a number of reasons. Pharmaceutical companies classify chemotherapy and other medications used to treat leukemia as specialty drugs, which aim to treat complex or chronic conditions and are particularly expensive.

The health care system and pharmaceutical industry play a major role in the high drug prices for leukemia and other cancer treatments. The cost of new drug development is very expensive, so in return, drug companies set higher list prices for cancer drugs on the market. Cancer drug prices are also high because of the seriousness of cancer as a disease.

While the cost of treating cancer and leukemia may be prohibitive, there are avenues for financial assistance for leukemia drugs. It is important to continue taking medications to increase the effectiveness of your treatment regimen.

Importance of Following Leukemia Treatment

There are several reasons people with leukemia will stop, skip, or take a break from their medications. Some of these include having allergic reactions to medications, experiencing side effects, forgetting to take medications, and the high cost of treatment.

Treatments for leukemia are often lifesaving. Diligent adherence to treatments and medications can improve your chances of remission. Poor adherence, on the other hand, may greatly affect treatment outcomes and lead to tumor progression.

Read more about the importance of adherence to leukemia treatment.

Research About Adhering To Leukemia Treatment

A study published in the American Journal of Hematology stated that in people with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), poor adherence to Gleevec (imatinib), a drug used to treat CML and some other types of leukemia, may have negative consequences like poor treatment response, drug resistance, and disease relapse. The use of imatinib can lead to high survival rates in people with CML, and taking the prescribed dose at the indicated times is important to maximize survival.

Another study found a strong correlation between medication adherence for imatinib and the probability of a major molecular response, which means the probability that the medication will work. Studies have found that a fast response to drug therapy is associated with better outcomes.

Studies about other types of leukemia have warned about the negative effects of not following medication instructions or not taking the appropriate amount of medication at the appropriate times. One study found a possible correlation between failure to take the appropriate amount of medication and disease relapse, or reappearance of cancer, in children and adolescents with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Financial Assistance for Leukemia Treatment

Since adherence to leukemia treatment is so important, it’s useful to address the sources of barriers for adhering to treatment. If the barrier is cost, there are different resources for financial assistance.

Health insurance can help to lower and provide reimbursement for the costs of doctors’ visits, copays, deductibles, radiation therapy, medications, and other treatment costs for leukemia. If you do not have health insurance, it is recommended that you consider your options, and check your eligibility for public programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and individual insurance plans through the health insurance marketplace. If you do have public or private insurance, it is important that you understand the details of your plan so that you know what services and prescription drugs are covered under your plan.

If you do not have health insurance or if you need additional financial support to cover the expenses of your leukemia treatment, there are many resources that could help. Below are a few to start with:

  • American Cancer Society offers resources and options for financial assistance for prescription cancer drugs.
  • Leukemia & Lymphoma Society offers resources like financial assistance programs and copay assistance programs. The organization also offers a copay assistance guide.
  • CancerCare offers limited financial assistance for cancer-related costs.
  • HealthWell Foundation is a nonprofit organization that offers assistance with paying for premiums, copays, and out-of-pocket medical expenses.
  • Ask your oncologist and other health care providers if they know of any financial assistance options. Many hospitals and clinics also have social workers
  • you can speak with about financial assistance for leukemia treatment.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyLeukemiaTeam is the social network for people with leukemia and their loved ones. On MyLeukemia Team, more than 8,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with leukemia.

Are you living with leukemia and dealing with high treatment costs? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Todd Gersten, M.D. is a hematologist-oncologist at the Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute in Wellington, Florida. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Elizabeth Wartella, M.P.H. is an Associate Editor at MyHealthTeam. She holds a Master's in Public Health from Columbia University and is passionate about spreading accurate, evidence-based health information. Learn more about her here.

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