Battling Cancer asks: Can You Put a Price on Life?

December 12, 2007 by  
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Today’s guest commentary is by Amanda, a cancer research scientist, on the high cost of anti-cancer drugs.

Can you put a price on life? What a complex and interesting question, and one that I have never really thought much of before. But this is the question that many cancer patients face when considering the coming months of costly treatment options after their initial diagnosis.

While many insurance companies cover a percentage of the drug treatment costs, the price of new cutting-edge treatments are astronomical. For example, herceptin is a drug that prescribed to women who have breast cancers that overexpress a receptor called HER2. This type of cancer is very aggressive, and tends to grow and spread more quickly than HER2-negative tumors. Treatment with herceptin is the only option for women having this type of cancer. However, the drug is by no means cheap. Months of treatment can reach $25,000-$50,000 a year. The approximate cost of a three week infusion of herceptin is about $5,000. If the insurance company covers 70% of the cost, you will still be left with $1,500 that is not covered.

This figure only takes into account type of treatment. Depending on the type of cancer, combinational therapy may be the only option for patient survival, with two to three different types of drugs that the patient must pay for or face certain death. After a few months, this adds up, and most working class families cannot afford it. And the question once again returns: can you put a price on life?

Why are these treatments so expensive? One reason is the cost of drug development. From the time of inception/discovery until a drug is deemed safe for use in cancer patients, a pharmaceutical company will invest about 98 months and $1.2 billion. Another reason is that the market for these drugs is very small. Only about 45,000 women test positive for the HER2 protein, leaving about 75% of breast cancer patients looking for other forms of treatment. In addition, herceptin can cause heart damage, further reducing the number of potential patients who can receive this drug. Patient fatality and generic versions also impact the ability of the company to recoup their initial investments.

The drug companies are in the position of making their stockholders happy and providing affordable treatments that will save the lives of many. The drug companies are also betting that the average person will pay just about anything to prolong their time here on earth. It’s not like a house. You can’t shop around for the best deal. Again, how much is a life worth?

There is some help out there for families that qualify. Genentech provided $205 million in free drugs to uninsured patients in 2006, and several of the other competing drug companies are following suit. In addition, these companies are also placing price caps on their cancer-treating drugs, helping to relieve some of the pressure. So for those that are uninsured and qualify for assistance, or overinsured with 100% drug coverage, the choice of cancer-fighting medicines is not complicated.

However, if you are like most people I know, you have insurance that seemed adequate until the unthinkable happened. What seemed inconsequential now becomes nearly impossible: paying the mortgage, buying groceries, and facing the rising costs associated with doctor visits, surgeries, and drugs. There is also the daunting reality that most insurance companies have a lifetime cap on health plans, and getting cancer can take a sizable chunk out of that total.

So what can you do? Some curse the drug companies, calling them selfish and horrible for not making it easier. Remember, these are the people who have worked to make a product that will save many lives. Some people flat out refuse to pay for the pricey treatments, limiting their chances of survival. Others delay life-saving treatment because they don’t want to lose everything they have. What is the point of living if you have nothing left to live for except debt? But put yourself in the patient’s shoes. You have cancer. There is a new drug therapy that cuts the chance of reoccurrence by 50%. This drug could save your life, but you will have to give up everything you have worked your entire life for to get it. Would you do it? How much is your life worth?

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