When Julia Louis-Dreyfus announced that she has breast cancer, she made sure to point out that she was “lucky” to have great insurance — and renewed the call for universal health care. Because every day there are 11 million women in the United States who live without any coverage, while at risk of developing breast cancer and other health problems.
For women who are diagnosed with breast cancer without health insurance, the statistics are particularly grim. Uninsured women are almost 2.6 times more likely to die of breast cancer than those with coverage, according to a study from the National Cancer Society. They’re also 3.72 times more likely to be diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer, which lowers their survival rate.
This is largely because women without insurance aren’t going to regular doctors appointments, or getting mammograms that could catch the disease before it spreads. In a survey of women in California with varying degrees of insurance coverage, researchers found that 21.2 percent of uninsured women aged 40 and up had never had a mammogram.
For those who do get diagnosed with breast cancer, they face daunting medical fees. The American Cancer Society estimates that uninsured women would pay at least $140,000 for their treatment, but likely far more. That cost goes down to out-of-pocket costs of about $5-10,000 with good insurance.
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When caught between survival and the thought of mounting payments, uninsured women with breast cancer “typically go deeply into debt,” Dr. Ninez Ponce, from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, tells PEOPLE. Others delay life-saving treatment until they can get insurance, or opt for the cheapest treatment possible.
Having insurance can literally save lives. The American Cancer Society’s study looked at 52,000 cases of breast cancer across the country, and for uninsured women with breast cancer, the survival rate sits around 80.4 percent. For women with insurance of any kind, that number jumps up to 92.7 percent.
To get ahead of breast cancer, many groups offer free or low-cost mammograms. Search for doctors in your area though the American Cancer Research Foundation, Susan G. Koman and the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Program. Additionally, Planned Parenthood provides free mammograms at their locations. During the month of October, many clinics offer free or discounted screenings — look for an FDA approved center here to see if there’s a location near you.
And if you can’t make it to a clinic, learn how to do a self-exam with this guide.