WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Cancer was once assumed to be a death sentence because the disease was often incurable, but a new survey suggests the crisis for many today is paying for available treatments.
High cost-sharing, caps on insurance benefits and policy limitations raise treament costs for people with insurance.
"It is a big surprise that 20 percent of people with health insurance can't afford to have the cancer therapy they need to save their lives," said John Seffrin of the American Cancer Society.
The survey, jointly conducted by ACS and the Kaiser Family Foundation, includes 20 profiles of cancer patients and their struggles to find affordable medical coverage.
The report was presented at a news conference Thursday, the same day U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had surgery for pancreatic cancer in New York.
Ten-year-old Taylor Wilhite's leukemia means cancer in her bones and blood. The cost of treatment and medicine since last March is now approaching the lifetime limit of $1 million from her father's family health insurance plan.
Fifty-eight-year-old Jamie Drzewicki is in remission from breast cancer after treatment and surgery. But she's unable to pay endless bills left over when her $100,000 insurance policy ran out. She said the stress from that debt could kill her if she let it.
"I can't go on with the fear that I'm gonna get cancer again, and have this stress every day, and I have to let it go, and try to pay what I can," she said.
Seffrin, who has led the American Cancer Society for 17 years, said it is troubling that money, not medical science, may keep the disease a top concern for society. "We can now begin to talk about eliminating cancer as a major public health problem in the United States early in this new century. If we can pay for it," he said.
The survey, based in part on requests for financial assistance received by the American Cancer Society, found several consistent factors facing those who otherwise had medical insurance.
They include high cost-sharing, where the cancer patient is responsible for some of the expense; caps on insurance benefits that are far lower than what today's cancer treatments can cost; and limitations on policies when an employee becomes too sick to work.
The report did not make recommendations, but Seffrin said the study of cancer patients should underscore the need for health care reform.