New Research Highlights the Financial Burden of Childhood Cancer Treatment

About a third of families surveyed had housing, food, or energy insecurity just six months into treatment.

Having a child with cancer takes an enormous emotional toll on families. Sadly, new research from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI) and Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center says the burden doesn’t stop there.

DFCI and Boston Children’s researchers found that roughly a quarter of families putting a child through cancer treatment lost a staggering 40 percent of their household income—if not more. About a third of families struggled with food, housing, or energy insecurity six months into cancer treatment.

Those numbers are based on survey responses from the families of 99 children being treated at DFCI or Boston Children’s, all of whom were polled about their financial situation at the time their child was diagnosed and again six months into his or her illness. The survey also revealed that 56 percent of adults supporting their families experienced a “work disruption” (either quitting their jobs, being laid off, or taking time off) during treatment, and the percentage of families reporting material hardships—in other words, struggling to maintain housing, food, or energy—rose from 20 percent at the time of diagnosis to 29 percent six months later.

Kira Bona, the study’s lead author and an oncologist at DFCI and Boston Children’s, said in a statement that the results were worse than expected:

“What it says is that even at a well-resourced, large referral center, about a third of families are reporting food, housing or energy insecurity six months into treatment. If anything, the numbers in our study are an underestimate of what might be seen at less well-resourced institutions, which was somewhat surprising to us.”

The silver lining to the study, however, is that material hardships related to childhood cancer costs are sometimes easier to rectify than overall income loss, either through donations or government support. “If household material hardship is linked to poorer outcomes in pediatric oncology, just like income is, then we can design interventions to fix food, housing and energy insecurity,” Bona said in the statement. “It’s not clear what you do about income in a clinical setting.”