The cost of the war on cancer

Over at BigThink.com (), writer, biologist and technology evangelist Kas Thomas gives his take on the war on cancer. It’s an excellent read and not too long, so I’d encourage you to check it out.

I’ve mentioned it before – cancer is big business. It’s a fundraising behemoth.

But if the goal is to save lives and improve the quality of life for cancer patients, is this the best use of those dollars? While curing cancer is a noble aspiration, are those fundraising dollars really going to help current patients?

When I worked at the cancer research centre, there were a few things which were shown to really, really help cancer patients:

  • Friends and family: Emotional well-being is strongly correlated with physical well-being.  Having a strong social network helps patients of all kinds by providing support during difficult times.  Wouldn’t it be nice if funds were provided so that patients who must travel to receive treatment could be accompanied by at least one family or friend?
  • Good nutrition: Cancer treatment can be extremely rough on the body.  Imagine – you are subjecting the body to drugs whose purpose is to kill human cells.  Sure, we attempt to target the malignant cells, but side effects are often seen in healthy tissues elsewhere in the body.  Having good nutrition helps the body recover from the cancer treatment regime.  And when a patient is undergoing chemo as an outpatient, cooking a balanced meal is probably the last thing on their minds.  Why not use some of those fundraising dollars to ensure patients are taken care of?

Of course, we want to help future patients as well, by developing treatments that are more effective and possibly even cures.  About $500 billion (in 2012 dollars) has been spent “fighting” cancer since 1971, and the disease is still the number 2 killer in the United States.  It stands to reason that we haven’t really accomplished the goal of curing cancer.

But as Thomas’s article points out, it’s not really curing cancer that we are worried about in the long run – it’s extending the healthy portion of people’s lives.  There are many ways to do that by spending much less than the amount allocated to fighting cancer.  Here’s some of my ideas:

  • A fresh fruit and veggie basket to low income households every week.  For a family of 4, that would cost $20-$40 per week.
  • Providing your children (if you choose to have them) with opportunities for physical activity, to encourage an active lifestyle throughout their life. Soccer costs about $30/month including equipment and is one of the best sports for fitness.
  • A good tube of sunscreen can last you the entire summer and protect against harmful radiation. Even splurging on a $20 bottle seems economical in this context!
  • Go to the doctor’s regularly for a physical/screening exam. Catching diseases early can drastically reduce the cost of care. Living in Canada, this doesn’t actually cost anything! American readers – what would you expect to be charged for a standard physical?

What are some of your ideas for making North Americans live healthier, longer lives?  How much would it cost?



Posted in: Philosophy

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