Cancer costs growing 'unsustainable,' expert panel says

Anyone who follows the drug business knows that new cancer treatments are rolling out with much fanfare--and high price tags. The cost of these cutting-edge drugs, which surpasses $100,000 in some cases, is helping to feed a fast increase in cancer-treatment bills worldwide, a panel of experts told a cancer conference in Stockholm today.

And that means the cost of treatment is threatening to outstrip society's ability to pay for it, even in the world's richest countries. "With an aging global population and an endless conveyor belt of expensive new drugs and tehcnologies and increasing financial pressures, the cost of cancer care in high-income countries is becoming unsustainable," The Lancet Oncology said in a statement.

According to a report in that journal, new cancer cases cost $286 billion worldwide in 2009, with more than half of that related to treatment. And that's with some 12 million new diagnoses. The number of new cancer cases is expected to grow to 22 million a year by 2030.

The journal's report, and the panel that discussed it at the European Multidisciplinary Cancer Congress, questioned whether all new treatment approaches are actually worth their cost. "Few treatments or tests are clear clinical winners, with many falling into the category of substantial cost for limited benefit," the report stated.

It's not just costly drugs that are driving the increase, but expensive imaging and surgery, too, the report said. Government officials, doctors, patient groups, drugmakers and other industry representatives should work together to figure out how costs can be better controlled, the journal report advised.

Given that cancer is a terminal illness, discussing ways to curtail costs can be a minefield, and actually acting to control expenses would spur controversy. But the report's lead author, Richard Sullivan of the U.K.'s King's Health Partners Integrated Cancer Center, said the conversation is essential: "Do we bury our heads in the sand, keep our fingers crossed, and hope that it turns out fine," he asked, "or do we have difficult debates and make hard choices?"

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