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article imageExpensive new cancer treatment renews debate on value of life

By Lynn Curwin     Sep 27, 2010 in Health
The arrival of Provenge, a cancer therapy costing $93,000 and extending the lives of men with incurable prostate tumors by an average of four months, has renewed debate on the value of life.
One of the people who was treated with Provenge, 80-year-old Bob Svensson, who is a former corporate finance officer, said he only tried it because his insurance covered the cost. He told an Associated Press reporter that he would not spend the money on it himself because the benefit did not seem to be worth it.
Prostate is the most common cancer in American men, and Medicare has not yet made a decision regarding coverage of the drug.
Several new drugs being used to fight cancer cost thousands of dollars a month, with the patient’s lifespan being lengthened by a few months or years.
Insurance usually pays if Medicare does, but some people are affected by lifetime caps and others are uninsured because of job layoffs. The new health care law in the US eliminates lifetime limits for plans that were issued or renewed on, or after, September 23.
Provenge is a one-time treatment designed to train the immune system to fight prostate tumors. Each treatment is individually prepared, using a patient's cells and a protein found on prostate cancer cells.
Because it is in short supply, doctors at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center can only treat two of their about 150 eligible patients each month. Part of qualifying for treatment is an insurance pre-check.
"I'm fearful that this will become a drug for people with more resources and less available for people with less resources," The Associated Press quoted M.D. Anderson's prostate cancer research chief, Dr. Christopher Logothetis, as saying.
Several other expensive drugs only lengthen life by a short period of time.
Herceptin, used for stomach cancer and costing $21,500, gave patients about 11 extra weeks of life.
Tarceva, for pancreatic cancer, costs $4,000-a-month and those taking it survived an average of 12 extra days.
Lung cancer patients taking Erbitux got about one more year of life at a cost of $300,000 to $800,000.
Gleevec, which is used to treat some forms of leukemia and stomach cancer, costs $4,500 a month but appears to be very effective in some cases. Before the drug was available about 2,300 Americans died each year from Showstack's form of leukemia, but there were only 470 death attributed to it last year.
Doctors said Provenge has only been used for men who have incurable cancer which has stopped responding to hormone therapy, but it needs to be tested in men with earlier stages of prostate cancer, before it is known how effective it might be.
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