Cancer makes patients poor

Low income and education, as well as lack of health insurance were contributing factors.

PETALING JAYA: With over three-quarters of South-East Asian patients either dead or financially poorer one year after being diagnosed with cancer, getting the big C is debilitating in more ways than one.

The results of "The ASEAN Costs in Oncology Study (Action)" showed that 29 per cent of patients were dead within one year of being diagnosed with cancer while 48 per cent were experiencing financial catastrophe.

"That's a devastating statistic," said lead investigator Prof Dr Mark Woodward from the George Institute of Global Health in Australia.

This is exacerbated by the fact that new cancer cases in the region are expected to increase by 70 per cent to 1.3 million within the next 15 years.

Among the factors associated with death or financial catastrophe were being aged over 65 years, low income and education levels, lack of health insurance and having an advanced stage of cancer during diagnosis.

According to Prof Woodward, financial catastrophe in this study was defined as having to spend 30 per cent or more of household income on cancer treatment.

In addition, 44 per cent of patients who were still alive after a year and who originally had no economic hardship before being diagnosed with cancer, were experiencing economic hardship at the end of the study.

Economic hardship is defined as being unable to pay one or more household bills.

According to the principal investigator for Action in Malaysia, Assoc Prof Dr Nirmala Bhoo-Pathy, this resulted in 46 per cent of the Malaysian participants using up their personal savings, 22 per cent being unable to pay their rent or mortgage, and 19 per cent having to discontinue their cancer treatment altogether.

Covering all the ASEAN countries except Singapore and Brunei, the study involved 9,513 newly-diagnosed cancer patients, including 1,662 from Malaysia.

Said Prof Woodward: "As far as I am aware, this is the only study of this kind to have ever taken place anywhere in the world, where we have actually followed up patients to look at both economic and clinical outcomes within a 12-month period."

He hopes that ASEAN governments will put into place policies that can improve access to cancer care and provide adequate financial protection from the costs of the disease.