TUESDAY, June 7 (HealthDay News) -- Increasing out-of-pocket expenses forces many cancer patients in the United States to forgo drugs and doctor appointments and to cut back on food and other necessities, a new study reveals.

The researchers looked at 216 cancer patients who sought help from the national nonprofit HealthWell Foundation, which helps underinsured patients afford expensive medications. All but one patient had insurance, two-thirds were covered by Medicare and 83 percent had prescription drug coverage. Most of the patients were women (88 percent) with breast cancer (76 percent).

The patients' out-of-pocket expenses averaged $712 a month for things such as prescription drugs, doctor visit copays, lost wages and travel to medical appointments. These expenses were a significant problem for 30 percent of the patients and a catastrophic problem for 11 percent, according to the researchers at Duke University Medical Center and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

The study didn't examine whether patients suffered worse outcomes because of treatment choices they were forced to make due to financial problems. However, the researchers did find that patients took fewer medications due to costs and were less satisfied with their care when out-of-pocket expenses caused hardship.

The data and conclusions of this study, which was scheduled for presentation Monday at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago, should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

"Overall, this study provides a patient-centered view of a reality of modern day cancer care -- something that we call 'financial toxicity,'" senior author Dr. Amy Abernethy, an associate professor in Duke's medical oncology division, said in a Duke news release.

"We used to think about chemotherapy toxicity in terms of bad side effects like vomiting, nerve pain, confusion and risk of fatal infection. Now we are starting to think in terms of how treatment choices impact real aspects of daily living such as the ability to buy groceries or not," she added.

More information

The American Society of Clinical Oncology has more about the cost of cancer care.