by Diana Zuckerman, PhD, president of the Cancer Prevention and Treatment Fund
Many new cancer treatments cost $10,000 each month or more, and yet three out of four are not proven to extend life, according to a recent study.
Of course, survival isn’t the only possible benefit of cancer treatment. But, unfortunately, most of these medications are not proven to improve quality of life, either.
Why is this happening? Is the infatuation with finding “new breakthroughs” undermining the progress of decades of medical research?
When I was growing up, cancer was a death sentence. Friends and relatives who were diagnosed with cancer got obviously sicker and sicker and soon died. But as an adult, I’ve seen enormous strides made in cancer research and treatment. Millions of cancer survivors owe their lives to decades of medical research. Are we at risk of losing what we’ve gained?
The new study confirms what many public health advocates already know: Cancer treatments are getting rushed to market before they are carefully evaluated. The new analysis wasn’t conducted by the government officials who should be protecting patients from expensive but unproven treatments; it was based on publicly available information and analyzed by reporters at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and MedPage Today.
In fact, the government officials who used to protect us are now part of the problem. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) used to require that all drugs be proven to improve survival, health, or quality of life before they could be sold. Now the FDA is approving drugs on the basis of “promising results” such as the shrinking of cancer tumors. That may sound reasonable, but too often cancer drugs are killing the cancer while also killing the patient—and as many of us know first-hand, making patients’ lives miserable at the same time.
While far from perfect, older cancer drugs are often more effective than the overly hyped but under-studied drugs that the FDA has approved in recent years. As an added bonus, the older drugs often cost much less, saving patients thousands of dollars and helping to keep health insurance costs from skyrocketing even higher.
The same infatuation with new drugs that is jeopardizing the safety of cancer drugs is also increasing our use of drugs and technologies that can cause cancer. Many of us can prevent cancer by avoiding the use of those questionable medical treatments.
For example, breast cancer rates have been dropping ever since women stopped taking hormone replacement therapy at the first signs of menopause. Unfortunately, the companies that sell hormone therapy and the medical organizations and physicians who have been bought and paid for by those companies continue to misrepresent the research findings and claim that hormone treatment for menopause is proven safe. The scientific evidence says otherwise.
CT scans and mammography can be tremendously beneficial if used appropriately, but they also expose patients to radiation that can cause cancer as well as help to diagnose it. Doctors and patients need to get past the hype and use these technologies only when needed, not whenever the mood strikes.
Farxiga ads are on TV constantly these days, promoting this new drug for the millions of Americans with diabetes. The ads feature patients dancing with joy, but what they don’t tell you is that the patients taking Farxiga in clinical trials were more than five times as likely to be diagnosed with bladder cancer and twice as likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer. Unlike the ads, the Farxiga website mentions (but downplays) the risk of bladder cancer and doesn’t mention breast cancer.
So why did the FDA approve a diabetes drug that seems to cause cancer? The agency’s official response is that those increases in cancer might have occurred by chance, so it’s requiring the company to conduct a large study to make sure it is safe—a study that will take many years to complete. Meanwhile, let’s hope that the millions of people with diabetes who are tempted to try this widely advertised medication won’t get cancer—or that they decide to use safer and less-expensive diabetes medications that have been on the market for years.
This month’s elections showed a strong discontent with the status quo. Cancer research wasn’t part of the political debate. It should be. Those of us who care about preventing cancer and helping patients avoid ineffective and unsafe treatments need to educate ourselves and also need to make our voices heard.
If you have any questions about a cancer treatment, you can email our free online hotline for information about what the latest research shows. And you may want to contact your congressional representatives to let them know how you feel about the FDA lowering safety standards for medical treatments. If you don’t, who will?
Diana Zuckerman is the president of the Cancer Prevention and Treatment Fund, a national charity that provides free help to patients and their family members, and also works to reduce toxic exposures that can cause cancer. She received her PhD from Ohio State University and was a postdoctoral fellow in epidemiology and public health at Yale Medical School. After serving on the faculty of Vassar and Yale and as a researcher at Harvard, Zuckerman was a health policy expert in the U.S. Congress and the Clinton White House. She has been interviewed by all the national U.S. TV news programs and newspapers and is the author of five books, several book chapters, and dozens of articles in medical and academic journals as well as in newspapers and on websites.