Thursday, January 13, 2011

Doing My Bit to Keep Cancer Care Costs High

I just got back from my first chemotherapy session of 2011.  Going to the oncologist's office is always a barrel of laughs, but I couldn't help noticing just how many people were there today, all clamoring to do their bit in contributing to high cancer care costs in this country.  It really seemed like the entire state of New Jersey had cancer and they were all getting treatment today.  Times this unscientific observation with every other oncology office in the nation and you could be forgiven for thinking that the cancer situation in the United States has gotten a little bit out of control.

Indeed, there's a new study just released by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, which says that cancer care costs in the United States, could jump to as high as $207 billion by 2020, representing a roughly 66% increase from current cost levels.  According to the the study,  the highest increases in costs are predicted for breast cancer (up 32%) and prostate cancer (up 42%).  Breast cancer is predicted to have the highest cost of about $20.5 billion because of the large number of women who will be living with the disease.

So let's just get this straight.  Researchers at the National Cancer Institute have produced a cost model that appears to make no assumptions about the possibility of the incidences of cancer decreasing in the U.S.  Rather,  the situation looks even more grim than it does today.  The model simply says that more people are going to get cancer and treatments are going to cost a whole lot more than they do now.  And it's going to be breast cancer for the ladies and prostate cancer for men. Now there's a comforting thought.  With all the money that is being raised to supposedly combat breast cancer, and the statistics predict it's still on the increase?  These statistics are partially explained by an aging population, but this can't be the only factor.  Is it because we are diagnosing and treating more cancers, than actually need to be treated? Are there environmental factors at play causing more people to develop certain kinds of cancers? And what do the NCI researchers know about current research protocols that lead them to make such pessimistic inherent assumptions about the progress of cancer research in the next ten to twenty years?

The authors conclude that;
".....rising health-care costs represent a central challenge for both the federal government and the private sector." 
A challenge to the private sector? Really?  After reviewing this study, I'm sure there are some pharmaceutical/cancer industry executives popping a bottle of bubbly and breaking out the cigars as we speak.  Because clearly we're assuming that cancer isn't going anywhere, and more and more people are going to develop it.  Longer-term survival rates brought about by oncology drugs that simply prolong a patients life (without regard to quality), rather than offering a cure, just means longer-term profitable annuities for the pharmaceutical companies.  And don't even get me started on the profits the diagnostic and screening industries stand to make with all these new cancer victims.  Suffice to say, I recommend buying any and all cancer industry stocks now, although whether you'll live long enough to cash in is another matter entirely.

The NCI researchers also conclude that;
"The estimates and projections reported in this article may be particularly useful for policy makers for understanding the future burden of cancer care and for prioritizing future resources on cancer research, treatment, and prevention."
Well no duh Einsteins!  If the government makes cancer funding a priority then we might stand some chance of eradicating cancer for good.  But can this really happen and is the $6 billion pledged by the Obama administration to the National Cancer Institute enough, especially when you consider that according to the NCI "over the next 20 years, the number of new U.S. cancer cases will increase by 45 percent; cases among minorities will double, and cancer in our senior population will increase by 67 percent."

In a recent Huffington Post article by financial columnist, Don McNay, "Jimmy V, Elizabeth, Aretha and The Economics of Cancer", commented;

"We declared war on cancer 40 years ago. Like many recent wars, we are leaving our cancer troops under-funded, without the kind of support they need. We have become a nation where our leaders can throw billions at places like Goldman Sachs, which does nothing to touch the lives of average Americans, but underfund the war against cancer, which touches almost every American family."
Further, he writes;
"Curing cancer sounds mind-boggling. Just like spending trillions of dollars in bailouts sounds mind-boggling.
It's all a matter of attitude, priority and focus. The focus needs to be on cancer on Main Street, not investment bankers on Wall Street, Germany and Switzerland."

Unfortunately, my belief is that the fight to end this disease comes down to a simple question of economics. As I commented on McNay's article:
"If all the people afflicted with cancer were magically cured, with no further treatment required, and were able to fully recover enough to go back to full-time work, would the commensurate increase in individual wealth, federal/state income taxes and the country’s overall productivity be enough to more than offset the economic effects of the disappearance of the "cancer industry"? If the answer is yes then we might have a chance at getting somewhere in the fight to eradicate cancer for good. I believe it comes down to a question of economic incentive. Incremental drugs that result in "management" of the disease are profitable annuities for the manufacturers. Drugs that result in total eradication or other policy actions that result in cancer prevention are simply not economically viable options to our for-profit health care industry and other key stakeholders."
Cancer in this country is now big business. Especially breast cancer, as we have seen with the recent trademark turf wars involving the nation's largest breast cancer fundraiser,  Susan G. Komen for the Cure®, the questionable pink-ribbon fundraising partnerships with corporate America like Kentucky Fried Chicken's Buckets for the Cure campaign,   and corporations for whom a pink-ribbon based marketing strategy is now a legitimate source of sales and profits thinly disguised as corporate altruism, it's no wonder that we don't seem to be able to move the fight forward to eradicate breast cancer.  As a capitalistic society, why would we unless there is a real economic incentive?

With the cancer care industry standing to make potentially $207 billion in revenue over the next ten years,  does the $6 billion pledged to the NCI by the government seem like it's enough?  I'm no economist, but I would say it's hardly a drop in the bucket.


  1. As usual, another brilliant & timely post. But it do make one sigh. Can you hear me sighing?? *SIGH*

    Ya hate to be cynical, but...

    I used to be good at math. I'm still pretty good at math. And somehow, we've got to change this math.

  2. It all adds up....just not in our favor.....*EVEN BIGGER SIGH*

  3. Keep on asking the questions. Somebody's going to listen eventually. SIGH.

  4. Anna, how did you knock this off in an afternoon after chemo? You amaze me.

    Simply speaking, the whole thing saddens me. I so wish it didn't come down to the dollar, but time and time again, it seems it does. You said it, in a capitalistic society, the money speaks first, unfortunately, in this case.

  5. Stacey, you know I read the NCI article before I left for chemo so I was already feeling pretty riled up before I got there. Then I got yelled at by one of the old ladies there for some perceived transgression so then I just felt even madder. I also had plenty of time to ponder the post whilst I was sitting in the chemo chair so by the time I got home it practically wrote itself. I just think this NCI study speaks volumes about the institutionalized pessimism that exists in this country in thinking about the war on cancer. Very disheartening actually. *REALLY REALLY BIG SIGH!!*

  6. Anna, Pretty impressive post here and Stacey asked exactly what I was thinking, don't you have any signs of chemo brain?? I think I will check out the McNay article because I like the comment about how we declared war on cancer 40 years ago and where are we now? I agree, it's about priorities, we can fund Wall Street bailouts and wars without batting an eye, but reseach that might cure cancer, not so much. (a few other things are neglected as well in my opinion, like schools, for one) The profits that are being made from cancer are astronomical. (When one post chemo shot cost $4,000 something's off) Anyway, hope you are feeling OK after your chemo. Thanks for the worthy post.

  7. Thanks for stopping by Nancy. Chemo seems to have the opposite effect on me right now. I just get angrier and what better way to let off steam than a good old fashioned rant.


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