Cancer remains the second-biggest cause of death in the United States despite billions of dollars spent annually on research, treatments, and medical infrastructure specifically focused on the disease. Treating the disease costs the US billions per year, though patients have little to show for rising expenses; actual survival rates lag well behind increased investment. The result? A cancer industrial complex where big business dominates and profits, not results, take center stage. 

Is Cancer A Business?

In 2023, nearly 2 million Americans were diagnosed with cancer. More than 600,000 Americans died of cancer last year, a shocking tally smaller than only heart disease as the most prolific disease in the nation. 

Those deaths occurred despite an incredible amount of cancer spending and investment. Today, there are more than 1,000 cancer treatment centers and programs in the US, not to mention the thousands of hospitals, public and private cancer research organizations, non-profits, pharmaceutical giants and start-ups spending billions each year to diagnose, treat, and ultimately cure cancer. 

Many, if not most, of these organizations are making progress, but not at the pace the world needs. These companies make repeated claims of cancer “breakthroughs” or develop “game-changing” treatment options, most of which have little or no impact on patient outcomes outside of trials. Cancer centers spent over $173 million on advertising in 2014, the most recent industry study on the topic. Truth in Advertising found that nine of the top ten cancer centers by ad spend were guilty of “deceptive marketing” by overselling the impact of their drugs or research.  

Related: The Key to Prevention Is Access

The Cancer Industry: Cancer As a Commodity

In 2021, cancer-specific medical spending surpassed $187 billion worldwide, but patients have little to show for it. Since 1991, US cancer mortality rates have declined by roughly 33%. That’s real progress, but it deserves context. Cancer rates increased during the six consecutive decades preceding the 1990s success story, and mortality rates for several types of cancer remain largely unchanged. Stomach, cervical, pancreatic, and other “low-profile”, or undermarketed, cancer types are within a few basis points of their mid-century death rates. 

Graph of cancer mortality rate trends.

Lung cancer claims more lives than any other type of cancer and still has the highest mortality rate. Despite billions of lung cancer research funding annually, a higher percentage of patients die of lung cancer today than they did in the 1960s The current lung cancer death rate of 26.80% is nearly identical to the 27.70% mark in 1982. 

Looking at the data, the only progress against lung cancer has to do with cessation – prevention – and not treatment. While the mortality rate has been essentially static for forty years, the number of diagnoses has declined by 42% in men since 1984 and 16% in women over the same period. Medicine isn’t necessarily saving more lives, but prevention certainly is. 

Related: How Radon Causes Lung Cancer

Cancer Treatment Costs Skyrocket With Minimal Returns

40% of cancer patients run out of money within two years of diagnosis, often spending six figures per year for treatment and related care. The return on such exorbitant expenses is an average increased lifespan of 2.1 months, according to a paper from JAMA. 

Cancer Research Funding Statistics: Overpromising, Underderlivering

The cancer research industry is worth over $10 billion, although exact totals are challenging to find. The National Institutes of Health allocated over $7 billion to cancer research in 2023, but it represents just one organization. 

How much money is spent on cancer research?

Globally, the cancer industry saw roughly $24.5 billion in funding between 2016 and 2020, with the US responsible for 57.3% of the total. Two cancer types, breast and hematological, received a combined 20% of the total

How many cancer drugs make it past clinical trials?

A fraction of the resultant products pass preclinical or clinical trials, and most cancer therapeutics take over 17 years to successfully reach the market. 

How much does cancer cost the US per year?

One study found that the US costs each citizen roughly $600 per year, twice the average of the combined 22 countries included in the study. The US ranked sixth in cancer mortality, which means we pay substantially more for marginally better cancer outcomes. 

We’re left with a troubling conclusion. As a nation, we face incredibly high care costs, billions in private and public funding, and little progress to show for a half-century of investment.

Prevention Is the Future

Cancer prevention, as illustrated in the case of lung cancer, is the real cure. By addressing the underlying and preventable causes of cancer, we can save millions of lives for a fraction of the cost of treatment. Join Less Cancer in putting prevention first – donate to our mission today.