Taking a page from the military on cancer screenings

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Colon cancer patients in the U.S. military health care system have a better chance of survival than the general population.

We looked at a situation when cancer survival is connected to the cost of treatment.

During her time as a U.S. Navy reservist, Wenora Johnson, took her health seriously, so when asked to do a routine colon cancer screening, she said yes.

“It progressed to a colonoscopy and then surgery, and then, waking up from surgery and being told that you have cancer,” Johnson said. “But not only do you have cancer, you have Stage Three B cancer.”

Johnson’s chemotherapy bills were another shock.

“It was $350,000 for three months. So imagine the copays for that. It’s scary. And in fact, it pushes you to the brink of bankruptcy because you don’t know how you’re going to pay for this,” Johnson said. “A couple of months ago, I received a letter, and it said that we’re going to garnish your wages.”

“Colorectal cancer is the second most expensive cancer to treat in the U.S.,” explained Anjee Davis, the president of Fight Colorectal Cancer. “Bills can range based on diagnosis and stage of diagnosis. So you can see bills $40,000 to $80,000 within the first phase of diagnosis.”

Cost of care impacts survival rates.

According to a new study, colon cancer patients in the military with universal health care and few financial barriers have an 18% lower risk of death and are more likely to be diagnosed in earlier stages of the disease.

“Individuals who did get or select the TRICARE, they got better care, better coverage and more of an incentive to stay healthier,” Davis said.

“You are ordered to have a physical,” said Jon Hess, the CEO of Athos Health.

But Hess says, while civilians can’t access the same coverage, we can access some of the same benefit if we adopt military-like discipline to screenings.

“You are violating your orders if you don’t do that in the military,” Hess said. “It’s important to start getting some of these things checked. So that if you do start seeing issues, your doctor will be aware of it and hopefully catch things early.”

“It’s an expensive cancer to treat, especially in the later stages of disease,” Davis said. “If we’re not compliant with screening, we’re diagnosing at a later stage. When we diagnose at a later stage, we’re talking about surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, palliative care.”

Innovations such as telehealth could help bring down costs for colon cancer patients.

Johnson did not have insurance through the military.

“They say for the military, there’s victims and casualties of war,” Johnson said. “Sometimes we are those victims and casualties of the health care system.”

Johnson’s care saved her life, but it’s also costing her financial future.

“In order for me to live, and to be here for my family, then I need to do what I have to do, even if it means having medical bills that I’ll be paying for the rest of my life,” Johnson said.

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