Your Money of Your Life–Herceptin and Breast Cancer

Very strange article in the Atlantic arguing all sides of health/cost debate. Virginia Postrel apparently believes that Heceptin, a costly ($60,000 for a course of treatment) biological drug that is used for breast cancer, saved her life. This despite the fact that at one year after diagnosis it is much too early to declare victory.

She indeed has a bad form of breast cancer, 6 lymph nodes positive. She was told there was a 50% chance of surviving.

The statistics she provides are vague and not well documented in the medical literature. For example she states:

“Adding the biological drug Herceptin, approved by the FDA in 2006 for use in early-stage cancers like mine, could increase my survival odds from a coin flip to 95 percent.”

There is no data to support this contention. Herceptin appears to delay recurrence and probably improves survival but how much is still unclear. 95% is a number that greatly exaggerates the benefit.

The New England Journal article cited by the Atlantic piece reported:

“1694 women assignedto one year of trastuzumab, and 1693 women assigned to observation.We report here the results only of treatment with trastuzumab for one year or observation. At the first planned interim analysis(median follow-up of one year), 347 events (recurrence of breastcancer, contralateral breast cancer, second nonbreast malignantdisease, or death) were observed: 127 events in the trastuzumabgroup and 220 in the observation group. The unadjusted hazardratio for an event in the trastuzumab group, as compared withthe observation group, was 0.54 (95 percent confidence interval,0.43 to 0.67; P<0.0001 by the log-rank test, crossing theinterim analysis boundary), representing an absolute benefitin terms of disease-free survival at two years of 8.4 percentagepoints. Overall survival in the two groups was not significantlydifferent (29 deaths with trastuzumab vs. 37 with observation).”

Not nearly as impressive.

The data Ms Postrel herself provides is that chances of recurrence were 1 in six without Herceptin and 1 in 12 with it after two years. Just to be clear, consider that the 1 in 6 recurrence rate means that 16.6% would recur in the non Herceptin treated group. And 1 in 12 (8.3%) would recur in the treated group.

This is a considerable improvement but an exceptionally costly one. It means that out of 100 people treated 8 or so get a benefit. 84 were not going to recur with or without treatment. And around 8 would recur regardless of the treatment used.

At $60,000/patient for Herceptin, 100 patients treated would cost 6 million dollars to treat. Out of the 100 treated, 8 patients would have an improved outcome, a cost of $750,000/patient who benefits.

This is an unimaginable amount for a health care system to spend and it is no wonder that systems think twice before implementing routine use of Herceptin.

The question is whether any health care system can afford this unless they more carefully select patients.

Medicynical note: Our costly pharmaceutic industry prices drugs for cancer patients an order of magnitude higher than drugs developed for less severe illness. Their development costs are a “trade” secret so one can only guess whether the pricing is justifiable. A medicynical guess is that this is a very profitable cost-plus business and that frugality and efficiency are not in these companyies lexicon. They charge based more on the desperateness of the patient’s situation than by the cost of development or even effectiveness of the drug. For example they spend more on drug promotion and advertising than on research.

These drugs are priced high despite the fact that many of them were financed with public funds. Even very effective drugs that required little clinical testing because of their obvious efficacy (admittedly an unusual occurrence) are priced over $50,000/year.

To give this pricing perspective consider that

  • drug costs are increasing at double the rate of inflation
  • incomes dropped several thousand dollars over the past few years
  • the cost of these single drugs alone exceed the median income of U.S. citizens
  • Medical care has superseded home and auto purchases as the most expensive purchases in a lifetime. Amazing

Ms. Postrel notes that we pay more/capita for drugs than New Zealand but what she doesn’t say is that the U.S. non-system spends twice as much as many industrialized nations on all aspects of care; that the U.S. is the only industrialized nation without some form of national health system; and that our outcomes in cancer are only as good as but not significantly better than many other industrialized nations.

As T.R. Reid noted recently:

“Which, in turn, punctures the most persistent myth of all: that America has “the finest health care” in the world. We don’t. In terms of results, almost all advanced countries have better national health statistics than the United States does. In terms of finance, we force 700,000 Americans into bankruptcy each year because of medical bills. In France, the number of medical bankruptcies is zero. Britain: zero. Japan: zero. Germany: zero.”

For people with cancer it’s truly your money or your life, and sadly most of these treatments in advanced disease do not cure and often don’t even improve patients’ outcomes.

Lastly I certainly hope that Ms. Postrel is cured.

3 responses to “Your Money of Your Life–Herceptin and Breast Cancer

  1. As the Atlantic article clearly states (“Given the details of my case”), the numbers I use are specific to MY CASE and are from my oncologist, based on both more recent research and the specifics of my fairly unusual situation. Even in less extreme situations, Herceptin is, however, as close to a miracle drug as exists in cancer treatment, which is why every developed country except New Zealand did in fact adopt routine use of it almost immediately.

    • Thanks for the note. Herceptin is a fine drug, and does indeed improve outcomes by the 8% we both noted. There still are the 84% of people treat who gain nothing from the drug’s use. Better selection of patients for such treatment would help.

      Our health care system is failing, Costs of insurance are exploding. The number of people uninsured are rapidly increasing. The question is how do we, as individuals and a health care system, deal with this. Is it acceptable that we pay twice as much for health care than other industrialized countries and have no better and in some areas worse health care statistics? Or that we pay more for Herceptin here than elsewhere in the world? Does our patent system need tweeking? Are drug companies pricing advances fairly? Shouldn’t we evaluate cost efficiency and decide whether an advance makes sense?

      I wish you the best.

  2. Back in 06 I was strongly urged to do a course of Herceptin for stage 2 breast cancer. I took my time, did my homework, educated myself in relative vs. absolute statistics and declined. Given that we, as patients, tend to think in absolutes it would be helpful if we are given the results of various treatments in absolute figures as opposed to relative. I determined that the chance of heart toxicity was as great as any benefit that would be obtained from treatment with Herceptin.

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