Karin Gaines of Rockford, Ill., is battling breast cancer for the second time in her life. She's taking two different medications to treat her disease, which also has spread to her bones.
In addition to the physical and mental toll her disease takes on her, it's also very difficult for her financially. Though she says she's fortunate to have COBRA insurance, her out-of-pocket costs are steep.
"COBRA is really expensive, and I still have out-of-pocket costs at the beginning of the year. Plus, every time I go in for a test or to see the doctor, there's a $30 co-pay," said Gaines, who is 56. "Last year, my out-of-pocket cost was $10,000."
Gaines knows she isn't alone, that there are many other cancer patients who are uninsured and have to foot enormous bills on their own.
Those costs, according to a new study by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), are expected to soar to $158 billion by the year 2020.
Researchers led by Angela Mariotto, a statistician in the NCI's Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences in Bethesda, Md., analyzed available data on the number of new cancer cases, survival rates after diagnosis and costs of care, and projected a staggering 27 percent increase in the cost of cancer care over the next decade.
"This number is a bit higher than we expected," said Mariotto.
She said the data are estimates that assume the number of new cancer cases remains the same over time, treatment-related costs remain the same and the population ages at the rate projected by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The NCI study also estimated that if costs in the early and late stages of cancer treatment rise by two percent a year, which is consistent with current trends, the projected cost of cancer could be as high as $173 billion a year.
Experts said the increase has a number of causes, including increased cancer survival, a growing number of older Americans, treatment advances and the desire to offer and receive the best and most care.
One of the main reasons for the skyrocketing cancer price tag is the growing number of Americans who are getting older.
"Cancer is a disease that affects more older people than younger, so the burden will be greater in 2020 than it is today," said Mariotto.
NCI estimated that 13.8 million cancer survivors were alive in 2010, and more than half were 65 or older. If the number of new cancer cases and survival rates stay the same, by 2020, there will be 18.1 million cancer survivors.
"The trend reflects the challenge, often discussed by economists, of balancing the realities of an aging population that is living longer due to improved medical care, with the costs of these people living longer, the costs of more of them acquiring diseases requiring treatment," said Jay Wolfson, professor of public health and medicine at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
Health policy experts also attributed the rising costs of cancer to new treatments, some of which may not be worth the hefty expense.
"The key reason is technology -- the relentless pursuit of new tools, drugs and devices that drive up utilization," said Dr. David Nash, dean of the Jefferson School of Population Health at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. "We are doing more things to more people at a greater intensity than any nation in the world."