A few months can be worth a lot

It is often said that many cancer therapies merely extend the patient’s life by three to six months on average. However, these months could have the utmost importance for a family.

 
Dr. Katharina Jansen

What are just a couple of months?

It is often said that many cancer therapies merely extend the patient’s life by three to six months on average. However, these months could have the utmost importance for a family.

Katharina Jansen

Dr. Katharina Jansen

spokesperson science and research Bayer AG

A few weeks ago, another headline appeared: Because of soaring health care costs, Germany’s Federal Joint Committee (G-BA), in which leading organizations representing health insurers, doctors and clinics evaluate the benefit of medications, has decided that new cancer drugs will receive closer scrutiny. According to the German press agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa), the committee chair noted that most of these therapies merely extended the patient’s life by three to six months on average, but often had strong side effects and were extremely expensive.

This argument has been made before, and as a scientist and former researcher at Bayer, I have always found it irritating. For one thing, of course, both the lifespans discussed and the reports of side effects are average values, and the actual result varies widely from one patient to another. For another: I realize that cancer research is hard work in a difficult field. But research that doesn’t begin by gaining a few months of survival will never yield a few more years of life, or perhaps even a full recovery.

And I must say that this time around, I found the announcement particularly infuriating: My dad had just died, of pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, the type of cancer with perhaps the worst prognosis of all. We received the diagnosis in January of 2017, almost out of the blue. Except for unintentional weight loss (which most people are likely to welcome) and a little back pain (who doesn’t have that?), there were no symptoms. By then it had already metastasized, with the largest tumor in the liver measuring 8 cm. The senior physician gave his prognosis: No surgery possible, only palliative chemo, life expectancy three months.

Research that doesn’t begin by gaining a few months of survival will never yield a few more years of life, or perhaps even a full recovery.

The week before, my brother and his girlfriend had decided to get married in May. Our next family vacation at the family home in Spain was already scheduled for March. After all, my Dad was only 72. Of course he still had years of life ahead of him. My happy little world suddenly fell apart.

And everything that I had learned as a scientist and press spokeswoman – good research, excellent networks, the classification of scientific findings – all of this only led me to realize that there was no hope. So we had to ask ourselves and the doctor the unavoidable questions: Does my brother need to get married right away? Should we even start another course of treatment – and if so, which one? A variety of relatively unscientific forums and Facebook groups advised against it: “Under no circumstances do chemotherapy; it doesn’t restore your health, it only causes side effects. And even if it does help, that only prolongs the suffering by a few months.”

Sometimes my parents even managed to forget about his illness

Despite all this, we had a family meeting and decided to do chemo – and we won. Not a happy ending – that’s no longer possible with this diagnosis. But we won an entire summer, with two family vacations in Spain. We won my brother’s wedding – many hours and days and weeks, during which we talked together, cooked and drank red wine – and my father was able to continue truly enjoying his life. From April, when he became accustomed to the chemo, until the end of October, when resistance allowed the tumor to grow considerably again, my parents deliberately savored every minute. Sometimes they even managed to forget about his illness.

I myself was able to share much of that time with them. Thanks to the range of options at Bayer and the flexible approach taken by my supervisors, I could adjust when and where I worked, so that I could give my parents the best possible support during this difficult time. A few days before he died, my father once again made very clear to me how much he had appreciated this.

After the tumor started to grow again, there was a second type of chemo. Naturally, my father and all of us hoped that we would have as much luck as the first time around. Sadly, this was not the case; the cancer had grown so rapidly that nothing could stop it. But all of us still cherish the unforgettable summer of 2017. Even if chemotherapy brings “only” a few months, these could still have the utmost importance for a family.

And so I am grateful to all the medical professionals, and all the chemists, biologists and pharmacologists, and all the others whose commitment, passion and expertise are ensuring that summers like ours become possible for more and more people. I believe that every evaluation of a new medication demands the utmost sensitivity, and not merely a look at average values that might not seem very impressive. Every person who makes decisions about new cancer drugs should be aware that for an individual with an incurable disease, but also and especially for all those near and dear, a few months are extremely valuable – a time worth more than any amount of money in the world. Therefore, investments in modern cancer drugs are worth their cost. Personally, I would gladly have paid even more.