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Cancer doctors and patients express concerns about exorbitant drug costs

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Cancer campaigns now occur every month of the year, from colorectal cancer awareness in March to World Cancer Day in February. Apart from all the ribbons and 5K walks, though, awareness is increasing about a different issue when it comes to the cancer landscape: the high cost of cancer drugs.

On a recent 60 minutes episode, correspondent Lesley Stahl investigated the price of cancer drugs and found some are so expensive that a growing number of patients can't afford their co-pay.

Dr. Leonard Saltz, chief of gastrointestinal oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering, one of the nation's foremost cancer centers, told Stahl that a cancer diagnosis is one of the leading causes of personal bankruptcy.

"I do worry that people's fear and anxiety are being taken advantage of," Dr. Saltz said on the news show. "And yes, it costs money to develop these drugs, but I do think the price is too high."

Patients have also been sounding the alarm about the effects of cancer drug costs. On his Patient Power website, cancer survivor Andrew Schorr noted that his chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is in remission, but that in the future, he could be a candidate for new anti-CLL pills that show promise. However, the price for those medications could be around $100,000 per year.

He added that when he developed a second cancer, myelofibrosis, the pills he took cost his insurance company about $8,000 per month. As he approaches an age when he'll have Medicare, Schorr wonders about that coverage's 20 percent co-pay arrangement.

"As more people survive cancer and remain on ongoing medicines, the U.S. has to have a fair and open discussion about the cost of cancer medications," Schorr wrote in the blog post.

Pharmaceutical companies counter with the argument that the cost of creating a new drug can be astronomical, leading to high prices by the time the drugs come down to the patient level. Last year, Forbes conducted an analysis on drug research, marketing and manufacturing costs and found that a company hoping to get a single drug to market can expect to spend $350 million before the medicine is available for sale.

But those numbers haven't seemed to quench the furor over pricing. In an opinion piece appearing in the AARP Bulletin, Donald W. Light and Hagop Kantarjian, of Harvard University and MD Anderson Cancer Center, respectively, railed against those drug company claims.

They noted that prices for cancer drugs are higher than other medications, even though the research costs are the same. Calling on Congress to hold hearings on the spiraling prices for specialty drugs, the pair also recommended that physicians treat patients with drugs they can afford.

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