Beating the Odds: One man’s battle against the system that feeds Cancer treatment

Andrew Glen - Columnist

(Photo by Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)

Sunday is Mother’s Day, and this Mother’s Day I will be thinking of my wife who has been a gift from the gods to me, but also two other women in my life who are equally as important; my own mother, who unfortunately passed away in 2014 of lung cancer, and my sister who passed away in 2016, of ovarian cancer.

My Mom

Many of you will be celebrating women who are important in your lives, and many of you will be doing so by walking/running/cycling in one of the many events being held to support breast/ovarian and the other cancers that affect women.

Whilst out and about here are a few things you may want to consider:

It took doctor’s over two years to diagnose my sister with ovarian cancer and by the time they did, they were already too late because the cancer had spread to numerous other parts of her body. Her oncologist did her best to remove as much of the cancer as possible, before she started chemo and radiation treatment, but again it was too little, too late. As a side note, her oncologist was later dismissed from Credit Valley Hospital because, as the board stated, she was spending too much operating time on her patients. In my sister’s case, she was scheduled for an hour. That is because they thought all they had to remove was a small tumour from one of her ovaries. Her oncologist ended up spending eight hours on her instead. She was subsequently told that she should have stuck to the hour, removed what she could and then passed my sister on to the cancer clinic to deal with. Her oncologist said she could not ‘operate’ under these conditions. Her choice was to do so, or leave. She is now working in a private clinic in California.

Christine doing what she did best: singing and smiling.

In my mum’s situation her diagnoses came a lot quicker, but then again her being a smoker for over 60 years; it was inevitable that she was going to get lung cancer. Unfortunately for her, there was little the doctors could do for her. Sure they have chemotherapy and radiation and surgery, but just how successful are these? Not very. More patients will die from cancer than will survive.

There are many reasons for this. One is that there is no cure. We all know this. Most cancer research is based on the HeLa cell, which originally showed very positive results. However recently studies have shown that the HeLa cells were not all they were cracked up to be and could actually have been giving false results for numerous years. This now means that a lot of research will now have to be redone at a cost of billions of dollars. This topic has also been in the news a lot lately as there is a movie coming out about it starring Oprah Winfrey.

Secondly, research is also showing that the majority of any new cancer drugs are doing very little to improve the survival rates of cancer patients or have offered patients only marginal benefits, with no evidence that they improve survival or quality of life. Overall cancer survival has barely changed over the past decade. The 72 cancer therapies approved from 2002 to 2014 gave patients only 2.1 more months of life than older drugs, according to a study in JAMA Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery.

And those are the successes. Two-thirds of cancer drugs approved in the past two years have no evidence showing that they extend survival at all.

The result: For every cancer patient who wins the lottery, there are many others who get little to no benefit from the latest drugs. Cancer drugs approved last year cost an average of $171,000 a year, according to the Center for Health Policy and Outcomes at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Although the high prices can lead patients to think they’re getting the Mercedes of cancer drugs, research shows that a medication’s price has no relationship to how well it works.

Which brings us to the third point; the most popular drug used for breast cancer, more specifically a certain type of breast cancer HER-2 is a drug known as Herceptin.

Herceptin (Trastuzumab), one of Roche’s three HER+ breast cancer drugs, recorded a 15 percent sales increase in the US and a 10 percent rise overall. Sales were driven by longer durations of treatment in combination with Perjeta, another HER2+ breast cancer treatment from Roche, for both early and advanced breast cancer. China and Brazil also contributed to strong growth in Herceptin sales during the year. Developed by Genentech (now part of Roche), Herceptin was first approved by the USFDA in September 1998, becoming the first FDA-approved therapeutic antibody targeted to a specific (HER2) cancer-related molecular marker.

The drug received the EC’s approval in August 2000 and has since been approved in several countries. Roche has exclusive marketing rights for the drug outside the U.S. Herceptin is currently approved for treatment of HER2+ breast cancer, and the metastatic type when used either in combination with the chemotherapy drug paclitaxel or alone, in patients who have undergone chemotherapy at least once for metastatic disease.

It is also an approved first-line treatment for HER2+ metastatic cancer of the stomach or gastro-oesophageal junction. A time-saving subcutaneous formuHerceptin (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)lation of the drug was approved in Europe in September 2013 which can be administered in just two to five minutes, rather than 30 to 90 minutes intravenously.

Herceptin therapy can cost over $70,000 a year per patient and although recent findings have seen some very positive outcomes for women with breast cancer, it remains incurable and still means patients suffer the side-effects that go along with using any chemotherapy. Also, Herceptin is used to treat a specific form of breast cancer -HER2 positive- and not all breast cancers.

But the biggest winner in all of this is Roche which nets over $6.5 billion in annual sales of Herceptin.

Maybe this Mother’s Day, while you are out walking/running/cycling, you may want to give a few minutes to ponder where all that money is going that you and many others are raising.

Andrew Glen holds a B.A. in English and Political Science from Western University (UWO). He is married with two sons and lives in London Ont. He is the author of Beating the Odds; a chronicle of his battle with and overcoming StageIV bladder cancer. War Dads, a fictional novel dealing with the unfortunate events surrounding PTSD and The Grotto and Other Stories a collection of short stories.


About Phil Saunders (17 Articles)
I have been a professional writer since 1988 when I began my career as a music journalist. In 1998 I began working at CBC, after returning to work with a Master's in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. In 2000 I co-produced a feature film that was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival among other North American film festivals. In 2016 I published a book on the Toronto underground music scene called No Flash Please: Underground Music in Toronto 1987-1992. I am also a photographer and documentary filmmaker.

1 Comment on Beating the Odds: One man’s battle against the system that feeds Cancer treatment

  1. Bob LeDrew // May 28, 2017 at 9:17 am // Reply

    * “he believes…that raising money will help in them finding a cure.” There will never be “a cure”, because cancer isn’t _a_ disease. It’s a constellation of diseases, and there will have to be many, many cures. My bladder cancer isn’t like his and ours aren’t like my friend’s oral cancer.

    * the fact that his oncologist described the process of chemo as trying cocktail 1, assessing, then trying another if that doesn’t work, is not appreciably different from antibiotics or other therapies. There are multiple options, and the process is you use the one most likely to be useful, then the next one, then the next one. It can’t be one size fits all.

    * The fact that more money goes into prostate than bladder cancer is sadly true. But that doesn’t argue against donating; it argues for targeting one’s donations.

    * “Ironically research is now showing that prostate cancer is best left alone and monitored…” Yes, science continues to examine diseases and when new information comes forth, new guidance is issued. The “watchful waiting” strategy has been around for decades, and it’s been very difficult to determine whether it’s the appropriate one.

    * “the old ‘slash, burn and poison’ method that usually results in more harm than good.” In 2010, Cancer research UK released a report that showed 10-year survival had doubled in the previous 30 years. The key factors, according to its chief clinician? “Faster diagnosis, better surgery, more effective radiotherapy and many new drugs.”

    * “what they call alternative or complimentary therapies, which of course they do not support, or do very little research into.” Here in Ottawa, we have a centre for cancer survivorship that offers a lot of programming around complementary therapies; we also have the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre. However, the alternative medicine field is chockablock with con artists and lunatics. Look at the 2002 PC-Spes scandal, where “herbal medicines” were laced with warfarin, coumadin, and alprazolam. Look at the Hippocrates “health” Institute in Florida. And on and on. The alt-med folks get FAR less scrutiny than conventional medicine, and it, too, is a HIGHLY profitable BUSINESS.

    * “Why then should the cancer system get a free ride?” Define “free ride?”

    * “I for one feel that trillions of dollars have been raised and we are no closer to finding a cure than we were twenty years ago.” Feelings are great. Facts are better.

    I was diagnosed with Stage 1 bladder cancer coming up on 11 years ago. My dad had five primaries. I’ve lost friends and loved ones. I understand his feelings. And he is more than free to base his actions on his feelings.

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