The Business Side of Cancer Treatment

Receiving a cancer diagnosis is devastating news for any family to hear but what makes it even worse is the price tag that comes along with its treatment. After the grueling months (or years) of hospital visits, doctor’s appointments, multiple tests, scans and chemotherapy sessions,  what you’re inevitably left with is a very hefty bill.

Cancer drugs are incredible life-saving inventions. Without them millions of lives around the world would be lost and they help to ease the suffering of many more. But cancer drugs are also big business.

Take for example the case of ipilimumab (Yervoy), a relatively new immunotherapy drug that has seen significant success in clinical trials. In 2011 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of this drug for the treatment of metastatic melanoma. The cost was $120,000 for four doses.

Like most cancer drugs, ipilimumab was never expected to be a miracle drug. In fact, it was only marketed as a drug that could add approximately four months of life as compared to the next-best alternative. But despite this, analysts forecasted peak sales of ipilimumab to reach $1 billion to $1.5 billion.

When it comes to the business side of cancer, business is booming.

The High Costs of Cancer

Although the profits from cancer drugs are so high the question still remains, why are cancer drugs so expensive?

The answer to this has many parts but the key reasons are:

  • The high cost of drug development
  • Cancer drugs each represent mini-market monopolies
  • The lack of price checks on the pharmaceutical industry

According to leading experts the main culprit behind the high costs of cancer drugs is the amount of money required for the Research & Development that goes into creating them. Pharmaceutical companies have long claimed that it takes approximately $1 billion to bring a drug to market, so not unsurprisingly these costs would then be passed on to the consumers.

Secondly, when it comes to monopolies, consider that for diseases like diabetes or arthritis there are multiple drugs that can be used to help manage both illnesses. If you have pneumonia there are many different antibiotics you can choose from to treat it. This competition is what keeps prices down and it is the lack of competition between cancer drugs that allows producers to charge any price they like. This is often referred to as a mini-monopoly. A cancer sufferer who is looking for the latest drug with the best survival rates simply doesn’t have the luxury of shopping around. The choices are usually between 1 or 2 drugs or nothing at all.

Lastly, the United States has a free market healthcare system. Unlike places such as Canada or the United Kingdom, the US government does not have the power to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies on a national level. This lack of control leaves consumers more susceptible to the higher drug prices of the big pharma industry

How the Cancer Treatment Business Keeps Costs High

Even in places where the costs of cancer treatments are more affordable, healthcare systems around the globe are still struggling to pay for cancer drugs.

The global trend of soaring cancer drug prices has been going on for some time. A 2015 study by the US National Bureau of Economic Research found that the prices of cancer drugs have increased 10% every year between 1995 and 2013 and there are no signs of this slowing down.

As we live longer and worldwide cancer rates rise, the demand for oncology drugs also continues to grow. This is the paradoxical relationship we now face: More people need more treatment which drives up demand but by increasing demand, we’re also increasing the very cost of the treatment itself.

Reducing the Costs of Cancer Treatment

Although the financial price of cancer treatment can be overwhelming for most families there are a few avenues for some help. Consider one of the following options:

  • Look into nonprofit groups that offer assistance (such as the HealthWell Foundation and the Cancer Financial Assistance Coalition)
  • Consider government agencies that offer support as well as faith-based organizations and local charities. For example, Cancer Care has a great list of all the different organizations you should consider.
  • Ask your hospital for a payment plan before starting treatment. But don’t forget to get anything you agree to in writing first!

Cancer research has never been more exciting than it is today. From super-boosting the immune system to developing personalized approaches, research is changing the face of cancer treatment. But all of this comes at a cost.

The good news though is that more and more healthcare professionals, government agencies, hospitals, and even insurers are becoming aware of the ever increasing costs of cancer care and the unsustainable burden it is placing on many families. It is hoped that with this increasing awareness will come a sustained and coordinated effort to address the problem and turn the tide in the rising price of cancer drugs.