Discuss as:

The high cost of treating cancer

We report tonight about concerns that in the bad economy some people are cutting back or stopping taking expensive cancer drugs -- often with disastrous consequences. We concentrate on one drug: Gleevec which costs about $4500 a month and must be taken for life as a treatment either for one type of leukemia called CML and one type of intestinal cancer called GIST.

But it is important to point out that Gleevec is not the only expensive cancer drug. It is one of a host of drugs that have come on the market in recent years that fall in the category called biologics. As opposed to traditional treatments they are molecules or proteins that attack specific targets within the cancer cells. Some (and Gleevec is one of the most effective) work spectacularly well in some patients but the prices are enormous. The breast cancer drug Herceptin costs about $37,000 a year, Tarceva for lung and pancreas cancer $42,000 a year, Avastin for colon and breast cancer $88,000, Erbitux for colon cancer $120,000.

Medicare pays for all cancer drugs and so do many insurance plans, but often with co-pays. In addition most of the drug companies have assistance plans for some people without insurance.

There are also expensive biologic drugs for other conditions. For example Ebrel for rheumatoid arthritis costs $26,000 a year and Cerezyme for Gaucher's disease $200,000. And Medicare does not cover these drugs as it does cancer drugs -- expect in certain Part D policies that can have co-pays

Why are the drugs so expensive? The drug companies say the drugs are difficult to produce and they must take in profits to keep up their research programs. But the evidence to support such claims is proprietary and thus not subject to verification. A new law will allow generic biological drugs to come on the market, but none will be here for a decade or more. Meanwhile these drugs which result from our new understanding of the biology of cancer and other diseases put huge financial strains on many individuals and on the whole health care system.