- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 6, 2005

If I wrote about every hyped medicine, I would have to write three columns daily. So at first I meant to ignore the irrational exuberance over the breast cancer drug Herceptin. But the nonsense kept piling on. And it’s all so horribly cruel to the 215,000 women who will contract breast cancer this year.

If you somehow haven’t heard, three new studies in the New England Journal of Medicine show this cancer, which last year killed more than 40,000 women, is now “cured.” Yes, that’s the exact word.

Among the headlines worldwide:

• “Drug touted as cure for breast cancer” (Associated Press)

• “Breast cancer is ‘cured’ by wonder drug, say doctors” (Sunday Times, London)

• “Breast cancer curable” (Daily Times, Pakistan)

• “Miracle cure for breast cancer at half the price” (Daily News & Analysis, India)

And it’s all a lie; false hopes for every woman who has or will get breast cancer until there really is a cure.

Long before this $48,000-per-year drug was first approved in 1998 for cancers that have spread beyond the breast, it was known to be worthless in all but about 20-25 percent of women whose tumors pump out too much of a growth hormone called HER2.

Further, responsible doctors never even use the word “cure” except with patients. They speak of “survival,” with five years arbitrarily chosen as the cutoff. (A friend of mine “survived” cancer, having had it seven years. We buried her last year.)

The longest any women in the latest studies were followed was four years and, for many, it was only one year — far short of the standard measuring stick.

But OK, these minor matters aside, just what did those three studies say?

One looked at breast cancer recurrence in women who had surgery, followed by either chemotherapy or radiation. They were split into three groups. One received Herceptin for a year, one for two years and the third got no Herceptin.

The trial is ongoing, but at one year there were 127 breast cancer recurrences in those treated with Herceptin and 220 in those who received a placebo. That seems impressive, but I’ll bet those 127 women don’t feel very cured. Further, Herceptin recipients were no likelier to be alive than nonrecipients.

The second paper, comprising two studies, looked at Herceptin as a companion to a drug called paclitaxel and chemotherapy. Three-year survival was 94.3 percent of those who took paclitaxel plus Herceptin, 91.7 percent for those who took only paclitaxel. Of Herceptin recipients, 90 percent had no distant spread of their cancer compared to 84 percent of women on chemo alone. Those are significant differences. But, again, 6 percent of the “cured” women were dead within three years.

So where did this “cure” talk come from? Don’t blame Herceptin maker Genentech, which issued an appropriately milquetoast press release. This disinformation was your tax dollars at work.

It originated with Dr. Jo Anne Zujewski, head of breast-cancer therapeutics at the government’s National Cancer Institute. “In 1991, I didn’t know that we would cure breast cancer,” she said of the studies, “and, in 2005, I’m convinced we have.”

The Associated Press repeated that line and dispatched it internationally and it was repeated endlessly. Why read a study when you can just quote somebody?

“This thing is out there now and there’s no pulling it back,” an angry Barbara Brenner, executive director of Breast Cancer Action in San Francisco, told me.

Ms. Brenner has good reason to be angry. She knows hopes raised so high will soon be dashed. And, she added, “Now the public is going to think the breast cancer problem is solved.”

Five-year breast cancer survival has significantly increased in recent decades, but always from incremental progress, never from miracle breakthroughs. And the problem is hardly solved.

“Really, we’re trying to unring a bell,” said Ms. Brenner. “And how do you do that?” I don’t know, Barbara; maybe in a few years when husbands, sons and fathers find they’re still burying their “cured” loved ones.

Michael Fumento is a fellow at Hudson Institute and a columnist with Scripps Howard News Service.

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