Cancer: A Booming Business, Globally

August 8, 2015

Between 2009 and 2014 the global market for cancer drugs grew from $25 billion to $100 billion. My calculator tells me that's a growth of $15 billion each year. A study of the increase in cancer drugs done by MIT is shocking:


Since 1995, a group of 58 leading cancer drugs has increased in price by 10 percent annually, even when adjusted for inflation and incremental health benefits, the study finds. More specifically, in 1995, cancer drugs in this group cost about $54,100 for each year of life they were estimated to add; by 2013, such drugs cost about $207,000 per each additional year of life. [emphasis added]


In a recent interview with NPR, oncologist Dr. Ayalew Tefferi of the Mayo Clinic describes in even greater detail the outrageous cost of these drugs. He describes cancer patients sometimes selling their house and spending their entire life savings on treatment with a drug that will, at best, add a few months to their life. Everyone should listen to the interview, because it speaks to all medical costs, not just cancer.


Cancer is a disease, one among many within a health care system in the United States at least, that makes money off of disease. The system is almost entirely for-profit, and the profit comes from "treatment" of the diseases that come to it. Cancer is common, now diagnosed in around 1 in 3 people in their lifetime (give or take), and each diagnosis has a load of treatment behind it, and thus a load of profit to be made. This isn't conspiracy; this is pure economics.


The dirty secret behind this deluge of money pouring from patient pockets into the cancer industry is this: over 90% of all cancers are the result of diet and lifestyle. We collectively tolerate a "health care system" that trivializes the impact of diet and reduces lifestyle counseling to vague recommendations for more exercise. The economic burden of this tragic neglect is not difficult to at least estimate. Bear with me on this.


Between 30% and 35% of all cancer-related deaths are linked to diet according to the study linked above. That means in 2015 between 176,205 and 205,600 cancer deaths are related to diet.


Each year now the economic burden of cancer is about $158 billion. If we approximate the economic cost of diet as 30% of the total cancer burden each year, we arrive at about $47 billion as the cancer cost of eating how we eat each year. Both breast and colorectal cancer patients have a lifetime cost to the system of about $100,000.


The $47 billion cost of cancer treatment, by the way, comes very close to the $40 billion estimated by the NIH to be the cost every year of treating cancer patients in the last year of their life. We can feel confident that my estimates are very conservative, since cancer patients who die have not only been treated for one year.


So $47 billion-ish every year is thrown into treatment of cancer that was caused by dietary choices. But of course it is only a cost on one side of the ledger. A dwindled retirement account isn't money thrown into a well. It is money that is elsewhere being entered on the 'profit' side of the ledger. Again, not conspiracy, just economics.

  • Medical bills are the leading cause of consumer bankruptcy;

  • Families are cashing in their life savings to purchase a smidgeon of hope and a wealth of side effects;

  • A minimum of $47 billion dollars are recoverable through widespread education about the relationship between how we eat and how we die;

Eating differently is a revolutionary act. To eat in a way that reduces the burden of cancer would be an intolerable loss of revenue for an industry that depends on a steady flow of customers. A 30% drop in customers would sink most industries. There is no mystery as to why nutrition gets little attention in conventional medical education. "The amount of nutrition education that medical students receive continues to be inadequate."


The decision to stop drinking sugary drinks; to stop eating highly processed foods; to avoid foods and drinks with a paragraph of added colorings, flavorings, preservatives stabilizers, texturizers and other chemicals; these decisions will do more than just reduce cancer risk later in life. Individual decisions to change dietary habits will bring both our medical system and our agricultural system to their knees, putting billions of dollars back in consumer pockets and forcing these interlocking industries to recognize that health, not disease, is the driver of profit.


Until then, though, the enormous economic burden of cancer attributable to diet will continue to feed the hungry beast of the medical complex.

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