The differences in net healthcare costs by age were quite substantial in some comparisons, with a 1-year mean net cost of $91,800 for younger patients with stage IV lung cancer and $62,300 for patients 65 years and older. The 5-year costs were $172,000 and $124,900, respectively. Costs in this study were reported in 2015 dollars and were inflation-adjusted.

For stage IV breast cancer, the 1-year net costs were $87,500 for the younger patients and $43,000 for the older group. The 5-year net costs for stage IV breast cancer were $172,900 for the younger patients vs $77,100 for the older patients.

Cost Relative to Cancer Stage

The researchers also found that costs typically were lower with earlier-stage diagnoses. For example, unlike the costs to treat breast cancer at stage IV, the 5-year mean net cost to treat the disease at stage I was $36,000 among younger patients vs $25,200 for older patients.

One-year mean net costs for stage I cancers in younger patients vs older patients, respectively, were $29,100 vs $21,900 for breast cancer, $29,200 vs $26,600 for colorectal cancer, $45,500 vs $35,400 for lung cancer, and $12,900 vs $8,900 for prostate cancer.

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Markedly higher costs associated with treatments for later-stage cancers highlight the need for early detection and prevention approaches.

“Net costs of care were highest for patients aged [younger than] 65 years with advanced-stage cancers, suggesting that early detection and prevention strategies are key to curtailing high long-term costs associated with late-stage disease,” stated the researchers. “This also emphasizes the need for continued effective cancer screening, as outlined by the US Preventive Services Task Force,” they continued.

The most common stages at diagnosis in this study varied by cancer type, with stage I representing 55.3% of patients with breast cancer, stage II representing 31.7% of patients with colorectal cancer and 78.9% of those with prostate cancer, and stage IV representing 40.4% of patients with lung cancer.

Median survival time was 18.5 months for lung cancer, 79.8 months for colorectal cancer, 177.9 months for breast cancer, and 199.9 months for prostate cancer.

The Most Expensive Treatments

Lung cancer showed the highest average costs to treat for most time periods and at each stage. However, for younger patients with stage IV colorectal cancer, the 5-year mean net cost surpassed those from the other cancer types in this study, at $179,300 vs $99,900 for older patients.

Prostate cancer was the least expensive to treat at 1 or 5 years for all stages, with treatment for younger patients with stage IV showing a mean net 5-year cost of $43,700 vs $27,300 for older patients.

A caveat to this study, pointed out by the researchers, was that the included costs were incurred prior to inception of the Affordable Care Act, which was expected to lower healthcare costs overall.

The researchers also noted that the study’s interpretations may reflect most closely costs related to care at institutions similar to those in the study and possibly be restricted to similar demographics as in the study pool. Furthermore, costs may even be higher now with newer treatments that have been developed since this study’s data were obtained. 

Still, this study serves as a point of reference that may enable estimation of healthcare costs due to cancer by monthly phase-of-care and at 1- and 5-year intervals.