The Multi-Billion-Dollar Business Behind Cancer: Why Is it a Commodity?


A male breast cancer survivor takes a critical look at the confusing marketing campaigns that surround his disease.

Like it or not, surviving cancer is a multi-billion-dollar business. Sometimes it feels like I’m being shuffled between combative pharmaceutical companies and competing cancer camps. In 2021, oncology spending is expected to be around 187 billion U.S. dollars worldwide, according to a market and consumer report. Turn on your TV for a few minutes and the onslaught of pharmacological advertisements will pummel you with visions of active and upbeat people whose happy lives are attributed to ingesting a drug of some sort.

But it’s not just the drug makers who are competing for my attention. Hospitals and doctors are vying for my business too. The American Medical Association (AMA) has created a “Code of Medical Ethics” for physicians to follow, and in it they state that “there are no restrictions on advertising by physicians except those that can be specifically justified to protect the public from deceptive practices.”

So, our oncologists can advertise themselves through any commercial publicity or other form of public communication. This seems like a reasonable policy except for the fact that, according to the AMA, “the public can sometimes be deceived by the use of medical terms or illustrations that are difficult to understand.”

Let me site an example from my own experience. For 50 years I have made my living as a professional stage magician. Magical entertainment, though a rather unusual vocation, is a very competitive business. In this case, I have become the commodity. I am in the business of selling myself, and I have an ethical obligation to represent my work honestly. But the truth is, nobody checks.

For those of us with cancer in our lives, the task at hand is to find and recruit the cancer experts that can reliably assist us in our mission to be healed and possibly cured; and the urgency of our quest doesn’t often permit a methodical search. When you are newly diagnosed with cancer, days matter.

So what can we do?

In my case, it was important for me to learn as much as I could about male breast cancer in the shortest amount of time. I was living in Hawaii temporarily at the time with no established primary care physician and health insurance that was only a month old. Within 30 days of my diagnosis, I was in surgery to remove my left breast, so that didn’t leave me a lot of time. The internet provided my only link to information, since little was known about how to treat breast cancer in men. In fact, male breast cancer is so rare that it took five years before I met face to face with another man with my disease.

So it’s imperative that we research our own particular form of cancer before launching a routine to save our lives. As daunting as it may seem, it’s up to us to advocate for ourselves – to read the fine print on those drugs we ingest and to ask lots of questions of those whom we enlist to help in our survival. I’m not suggesting that drug makers and doctors deliberately exaggerate their products or inflate their achievements but learning to read through the hyperbole is often difficult, especially when you are working diligently at beating cancer.

A few years back I spent a week as a student and participant in a program called “Project LEAD,” the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s science training program for activists in the world of breast cancer research and public policy. We spent many hours each day studying and learning to interpret clinical trials. If you think understanding the fine print on your medicine bottle is difficult, try interpreting a clinical trial of the drugs you are taking. This is where we need to enlist the help of others.

Cancer support groups are a great resource for many of us. First person, experiential stories from fellow survivors is an important tool, though people react differently given identical drugs. And following reliable sources of cancer information is a valuable means of collecting information. Right now you’re reading this story in CURE®, one of my own trusted sources for the very latest in scientific and medical advancements for patients like me, along with many personal essays and stories by survivors.

At the end of the day, cancer is not without conflict. If you’re a patient or survivor dealing with constant corporate controversy or bothersome bureaucratic battles, you are not alone. This is one area that seems to connect all of us. And it’s that very connection that unites us, because despite all of its varieties and forms, there really is just “one” cancer. It’s the one each of us has.

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