Darlene Gant is dying of breast cancer. She’s been writing a decade’s worth of cards — birthday, graduation, wedding — for her 11-year-old son. Plus one extra envelope, sealed. That card is to be opened upon her
death, which she believes will come before Mother’s Day.
In addition to writing cards to her son, Gant made a 20-minute video in which she rages against the FDA for not allowing compassionate use of the drug Pertuzumab.
In February drug maker Roche announced that Pertuzumab was given priority review by FDA precisely because of its promising effect on HER2-positive breast cancer.
A phase III clinical trial revealed that metastatic breast cancer patients increased their progression-free survival from 12.4 months to 18.5 months longer when Pertuzumab was combined with two other chemotherapy drugs, Herceptin and docetaxel.
However, the earliest date Pertuzumab would become available is June 8, 2012. Gant knows where she stands, and she’s trying her best to parent from “the beyond.” She would do anything for another year, or even a few months, with her son.
But it’s not just personal. So many women are dying of breast and ovarian cancer, Gant says. Why not give them a fighting chance?
Chemotherapy does not work, goes the myth. Ah, but I’m a 10-year survivor of stage III ovarian cancer. At a conference on the subject, I saw before-and-after slides of a liver riddled with tumors before chemotherapy. After treatment, the liver was clear. The speaker said he shows those slides to his medical students who doubt the power of anti-cancer drugs.
I can understand the common perception that chemo is ineffective, since so many patients end up pale, thin and bald. And then dead. It’s normal to think of what you can see — medicine — instead of what you can’t see, like cancer overtaking a vital organ.
What’s at issue here? One problem is cost. Chemotherapy is expensive, especially if it’s delivered in pill form, at home, instead of intravenously, at a doctor’s office or hospital.
A brain cancer patient in Maryland was prescribed six weeks of daily chemotherapy. The cost was $10,800, but because the drug was in pill form instead of IV, her insurance paid only $2,000. The same drug, if delivered by needle in a doctor’s office, would have cost her nothing.
Health care is more expensive in the United States than in the rest of the developed world. One reason is that medical care providers and drug companies have the upper hand when it comes to price negotiation. The customer/patient is, by definition, in a tight spot.
But another reason is because the United States leads the world in medical research, and that doesn’t come cheap. Good for other countries that negotiate on prices but still benefit from our innovation. Not so good for us. Per person, the United States spends twice as much as the French do on health care.
People struggle to pay their cancer bills, and with an aging boomer population, this problem will only get worse. Even those with insurance average $712 per month in out-of-pocket medical expenses. The rates of personal bankruptcy are two to six times higher for cancer patients and survivors.
This expense, whether borne by patients, in the form of copays and insurance premiums, or by the public in the form of taxes, takes a toll. One of the hidden costs is apathy.
We’ve all got to go sometime. Cancer is nature’s way. She should never have gotten cancer to begin with. Why wasn't she doing yoga, or eating vegan, or thinking positive thoughts? It’s so tempting to think, as one video comment suggests, “Cannabis, organic baking soda and molasses. Those cure cancer.”
If only it were that simple.
Young mothers die every day. Even so, each is a singular tragedy: One mother, one little boy. The cards Darlene Gant wrote to her son are a beautiful gesture, but not unusual. What’s extraordinary is Gant using what little strength she has left to plead her case for women she’ll never meet.
Gant realizes it’s too late for her, but she urges viewers to support the National Breast Cancer Coalition, whose target is “public policy, science, industry and advocacy.”
Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, are you listening? It appears you’ve yet to recover from the Planned Parenthood grant fiasco in January. In the cancer world, a lot has changed in the 30 years since Komen was founded. Awareness is no longer enough. Early detection is not enough. Fundraising is not enough.
Cancer is a complicated disease. We now know cancer adapts to whatever treatment we throw at it. We know that one in three — someday, one in two — will get cancer. No one has a magic shield.
Gant’s message to the world was uploaded on April 16. In the video we see a weak, bedridden, tearful woman who attempts to help fellow cancer patients, current and future. In her words:
“It's horrible that in all this time, from 1950 all the way up to 2012, we’re using some of the same drugs . . . We’re doing the same things. Slicing off breasts and slicing off pieces of people and then giving radiation and chemotherapy. We’re poisoning people. We’re doing the same thing. There has to be another way.”
Cancer causes extreme fatigue. It would be so much easier to just let things go. But Darlene Gant decided to go down swinging. She did it for us.
Donna Trussell is a Texas-born writer living in Kansas City. Follow her on Twitter @donnatrussell.