Last-Ditch Cancer Treatment Is Questionable

Jul 15th, 2011 | By Sharon Shaw Elrod MSW EdD | Category: Senior Finances

Another financial horror story showed up on Bloomberg news last March, all in the name of end of life choices.  The article begins with

March 4 (Bloomberg) — It was some time after midnight on Dec. 8, 2007, when Dr. Eric Goren told me my husband might not live till morning.


The kidney cancer that had metastasized almost six years earlier was growing in his lungs. He was in intensive care at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and had begun to spit blood.

Terence Bryan Foley, 67 years old, my husband of 20 years, father of our two teenagers, a Chinese historian who earned his Ph.D. in his 60s, a man who played more than 15 musical instruments and spoke six languages, a San Francisco cable car conductor and sports photographer, an expert on dairy cattle and swine nutrition, film noir and Dixieland jazz, was confused. He knew his name, but not the year. He wanted a Coke.

Should Terence begin to hemorrhage, the doctor asked, what should he do?

This was our third end-of-life warning in seven years. We fought off the others. Perhaps we could dodge this one too. Dr. Keith Flaherty, Terence’s oncologist, and I both believed that a new medicine he had just begun to take would buy him more time.

Keep him alive if you can, I said. Let’s see what the drug, Pfizer Inc.’s Sutent, can do.

Terence died six days later, on Friday, Dec. 14, 2007.

What I couldn’t know then was that the thinking behind my request — along with hundreds of decisions we made over seven years — was a window on the impossible calculus at the core of the U.S. health-care debate. (emphasis added by Senior Editor)

Expensive Last Chances

Terence and I didn’t have to think about money, allocation of medical resources, the struggles of more than 46 million uninsured Americans, or the impact on corporate bottom lines. Backed by medical insurance provided by my employers, we were able to fight his cancer with a series of expensive last chances like the one I asked for that night.

How expensive? The bills totaled $618,616, almost two- thirds of it for the final 24 months, much of it for treatments that no one can say for sure helped extend his life.

In just the last four days of trying to keep him alive — two in intensive care, two in a cancer ward — our insurance was charged $43,711 for doctors, medicines, monitors, X-rays and scans. Two years later, the only thing I know for certain that money bought was confirmation that he was dying.” (Bloomberg)

The entire article is worth reading, and probably re-reading.  The story of this couple’s struggle fighting cancer is heart-breaking.  And it is a testimony to the serious debate going on around the world about whether or not the expensive last ditch efforts to fight a terminal disease is really the wisest choice available.

The article is clearly a testimony to one reason why health care costs have soared over the past couple of decades.  A serious question about whether last-ditch efforts to treat a terminal illness is worth the possibility of others’ losing health care benefits altogether.  Very serious question.



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