Cancer deaths cost the US $94 billion in lost earnings


Almost 500,000 Americans died of cancer in 2015 and a new study concludes the disease robbed them not only of their lives but of $94.4 billion in lifetime earning potential.

The American Cancer Society study released Wednesday calculates the missed-out money implications and, in the process, emphasizes the importance of early screening and prevention.

“The economic burden of lost earnings from premature cancer deaths in the United States appears to be significant,” the study said, noting that almost half of all cancer deaths are linked to factors like smoking, weight, diet and physical inactivity. The study based its findings on cancer mortality statistics, life expectancy data and US Census information on earnings.

They estimated that the 492,146 people who died of cancer in 2015 could have had 8.7 million more years of life if not for the disease.

The lost earnings are not spread evenly across the country. They were the smallest in the West and the largest in the South. For example, the deprived earnings in Utah were $19.6 million and $35.3 in Kentucky, said the study in JAMA Oncology.

Male smokers are most common in Southern states and least common in Utah, the study noted. Likewise, about 50 percent of Louisiana patients with an early stage of lung cancer went in for surgery, though about 75 percent of Utah patients went in for surgery.

Treatment rates are closely linked to health insurance coverage rates, the study said. In Southern states, less than half of the population had insurance through their employer as of 2017, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Utah had a coverage rate of 60 percent, the nonprofit said.

The findings are another sobering reminder of how much money cancer takes away from Americans. Other research has looked at the expenses and debts cancer patients rack up while in treatment. Approximately one in four cancer survivors have had problems paying their medical bills, the Centers for Disease Control announced earlier this month. Their yearly out-of-pocket expenses are about $400 higher and about one-quarter said they were forced to cover medical costs by either borrowing money, going into debt or declaring bankruptcy.

Indeed, the estimated $94 billion in lost earnings is a massive sum — but the problem of deprived earnings could become more acute. Cancer will cause more deaths — an estimated 606,880 — this year, according to the American Cancer Society.

The study acknowledges its limitations. For one thing, it noted the missed out money projections could be even higher because the research didn’t factor in someone’s lost earnings because of absenteeism or lower performance while still living. And, of course, it’s impossible to measure cancer’s emotional toll on the people fighting the disease — not to mention their friends and family.

But the research tried to sound a hopeful note. If all states could resemble Utah, researchers said there would be $27.7 billion less in lost earnings.

Stopping the preventable deaths “would have substantial economic benefit nationally,” researchers said.