9/14/2015 by Share Your Story

Duluth News Tribune: Medical innovation keeps cancer patients alive, and running

Don Wright, a 74-year old cancer survivor, just finished his 89th marathon since his cancer diagnosis.


Hardly a day goes by without news headlines practically screaming about health care’s latest skirmish: the cost of cancer drugs and therapies versus their value and worth. At a time when continuous scientific and technological breakthroughs touch nearly every aspect of our lives, it does seem curious that when it comes to our literal life, the argument over money really begins.

But, Duluth native Don Wright is breaking through this dispute and delivering a special kind of clarity. Don Wright is a 74-year-old grandfather who lives now in Stillwater, Minn. He’s the epitome of “Minnesota Nice.” He’s also the cancer patient nonpareil.
Hardly a day goes by without news headlines practically screaming about health care’s latest skirmish: the cost of cancer drugs and therapies versus their value and worth. At a time when continuous scientific and technological breakthroughs touch nearly every aspect of our lives, it does seem curious that when it comes to our literal life, the argument over money really begins.

But a Duluth native is breaking through this dispute and delivering a special kind of clarity. Don Wright is a 74-year-old grandfather who lives now in Stillwater, Minn. He’s the epitome of “Minnesota Nice.” He’s also the cancer patient nonpareil.

In 2003, Wright was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of cells in the bone marrow. He was given an optimistic survival window of five years. Yesterday, however, he was to run the inaugural Dick Beardsley Marathon in Detroit Lakes, Minn. — his 89th marathon, including nine Grandma’s Marathon finishes.

Pretty amazing feat, but there’s more. Yesterday’s marathon was his 88th since his cancer diagnosis (“Marathoner on a mission: Duluth native has run 88 marathons since receiving cancer diagnosis,” Sept. 6).

“Modern medical advances keep me running and keep me alive,” he said.

For the past seven years, Wright has taken an oral cancer medication, not an intravenous therapy that would certainly prevent him from being as active as he is. Because he can take a pill, and not a needle, his cancer is in check.

Multiple myeloma, however, cannot be cured, so Wright’s life literally depends on the advancements of continuing medical innovation to provide the next generation of treatments (and the next, and the next) to extend his life.

That’s why our organization, Patients Rising, is sponsoring this running man. He represents promise and possibility to the tens of millions of cancer patients and their families, and whose story can educate and inspire people who need it the most.

Which brings us to a Minnesota-based development that’s not so nice.

The journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings recently published a commentary signed by 118 physicians focusing broadly (and essentially only) on the cost of cancer pharmaceuticals, rather than their value or even their inherent potential and possibility.

This was no dry and technical white paper or an even-handed contemplation of the best ways to bring the pharmaceutical industry, insurance companies and public policymakers to the table. It was a diatribe for price controls in medicine.

To a Mayo Clinic patient like Don Wright, the hyper-obsession about cost is nothing short of baffling. “I like my Mayo doctors. I just don’t like what Mayo is doing here,” he said.

This represents as disturbing a development to cancer patients as one can imagine — a deadly diagnosis of another kind that puts a price on their heads and tells them that their life just might not be worth it.

The suggested prescription offered by the Mayo 118 calls for a panel established by the Affordable Care Act to unilaterally impose price controls on cancer therapies and for the FDA to be restructured to set costs. The result would be utter chaos. Forget partisan politics. These are simply not mainstream or realistic proposals.

And if they had been in effect for the last several years, maybe Wright doesn’t get to benefit from the research, investment, clinical trials and scientific review that developed the drug that keeps him alive and kicking — and running. Millions of patients can say the same thing.

Imagine if the Mayo 118 fought for research and reimbursement, making sure patients have ready access to the best, most advanced treatments and improvements to the drug-approval process that everyone can agree takes too long? If drug prices can be lowered by faster approval times and less red tape, let’s do it today.

The truth is, however, that medications are less than 10 percent of total health care spending, and cancer pharmaceuticals specifically are less than 1 percent. Hospitals (like Mayo) account for a third, the largest single segment of health care spending.

Here’s a consensus idea: Invest in life-saving, life-extending and life-improving medicines. A study in Health Affairs showed that from 1995-2007 cancer deaths decreased the most in countries where cancer investment increased the most, with America leading the way.

Don Wright and patients everywhere need a war on cancer, not a war about cancer. The Mayo 118 should stop playing politics and start promoting streamlined access to cutting-edge therapies that save money and save lives.

Now there’s a prescription we’d be glad to see filled.

Jonathan Wilcox is the co-founder and policy director of Patients Rising and a visiting scholar at the USC Annenberg Center for Communication Leadership and Policy.

The following piece on 74-year old cancer survivor Don Wright was originally published at the Duluth News Tribune.


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