Then & Now: Why We’re STILL So Bad At Treating Cancer (Hint – Profit Motive)


How do we measure up to 1979 America when it comes to cancer? Not very well. 33 years later, and we have barely budged the needle.

This is the first in a series of articles examining how much certain things have — and have not — changed in the past 33 years. Why 33? Well, when I was ill recently, I happened to pick up a book of that vintage: “The Book Of Lists 2.” It was published in 1979 and my copy is yellowing and creased but I still keep it handy for when I want a bit of mental popcorn. This particular day I turned to a list of 10 stories that had been censored, not reported by the media. The list was provided by Project Censored, a group that was founded at Sonoma State University in 1976 and who continue to do stellar work today. As I read, I was dismayed to note that most of the stories were still valid and still under-reported. So I decided to examine exactly how much they had changed in the ensuing time period. The first on the list is the American business of treating cancer.

The original piece: Although cancer research has become a billion-dollar industry, results have been minimal. Since President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act in 1971, over $4 billion has been spent. Yet the U.S. still has the highest cancer rate in the world – 50% above the world average – and the chance for an American to survive cancer has increased only 1% since the 1940s.

Update: We have spent over $90 billion since Nixon signed the National Cancer Act. Most of that came from the National Cancer Institute and some 260 nonprofit organizations. This money hasn’t been wasted, since we do know a lot more about cancer than we did 33 years ago. But we are still not much closer to curing it.

According to the American Cancer Society, about 1,660,290 cases of cancer will be diagnosed this year, not including certain kinds of skin cancers that are not required to be reported. They estimate that approximately 580,000 people will die of cancer in 2013: that’s around 1,600 people every day. Cancer is the second most common cause of death in the U.S., only heart disease kills more Americans.

The good news is that the survival rate has gone up. The rate that was only 1% higher than the 1940s was 49% – the survival rate today is 68 percent. The improvement comes mostly from our ability to diagnose many cancers early enough to successfully treat it. These statistics can vary depending upon the type of cancer involved. Lack of health insurance is one factor, as those who are uninsured are less likely to seek care until the cancer has progressed to a later stage, when treatment is more difficult and more costly.

The cost of cancer has, naturally enough, gone up dramatically. Cancer costs in 2008, the most recent year estimated by the National Institutes of Health, were $201.5 billion. That includes about $75 billion for medical costs and $124 billion in loss of productivity due to premature death.

While some of these numbers are encouraging, the truth is that there are some systemic problems that make our battle with cancer so very difficult. Take a look at those fatality rates again: 1 in 4 American deaths this year will be due to cancer.┬áMore people have died of cancer since Nixon signed that bill than have died in every war America has ever fought, combined. The annual toll of cancer has risen 73% since that original entry was made. Some will point out that we live longer now and that must be factored in. But, even if we do that, the percentage of those who die from cancer is about the same as it was in 1950. Surely, we’ve come so much farther in the ensuing years?

And consider that the gains we have made are partially due to behavioral changes: quitting smoking, getting mammograms, PSA tests for prostate cancer and other early detection and prevention techniques. But scientists at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center say that when you break down the Big Four (lung, colon and rectal, breast, and prostate) by stage – i.e., how far the malignant cells have spread – long-term survival rates for advanced cancer has barely moved since the 1970s.

When you realize that the business of treating cancer is second only to the business of petrochemicals in profits, then you begin to understand one reason why those numbers have been so sluggish. From 1970 to 1990 alone, the business of treating cancer was worth $1 trillion. Today, cancer treatment is a $120 billion a year industry in the United States and $600 billion worldwide. One of the most successful cancer treatment centers, Cancer Treatment Centers of America, is an unabashedly for-profit stable of hospitals with six centers spread across the country. Though they do not appear on lists of best hospitals for cancer treatment, they charge exorbitant fees and are very selective about who they accept as patients. And they massage their numbers to appear more successful than they are at curing cancer. Reuters published an eye-opening expose’ on CTCA in March of this year. The big problem is that cancer treatment has been turned into a for-profit enterprise. I will let you extrapolate from there.

So how do we measure up to 1979 America when it comes to cancer? Not very well. Yes, we can detect some cancers earlier, thereby treating them more effectively. We have changed some of our behaviors to prevent cancer and detect it early. There are some promising new drugs and treatments, including nanoparticles. But we have made cancer a paying proposition and that is why we are losing the war.

Having just lost a dear friend to this disease last year, I can tell you that I don’t call it “cancer” anymore: I call it “f**king cancer.” I hope that, someday, we can all refer to it in the past tense.

All current figures came from this American Cancer Society’s latest report.