A few days before Christmas, NPR’s Radiolab released a program entitled “Worth.” The first story, “How Much Would You Pay for a Year of Life?” fascinated and jostled me. The story’s producer cited an October 2012 New York Times op-ed piece by three doctors at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. These doctors explained Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s decision not to offer a new cancer drug, Zaltrap, due to its high cost (approximately $11,000 for a month of treatment). This drug, intended to treat colon cancer, was found to increase a person’s life by a median of 1.4 months. The cost (in consideration with the limited effect on life expectancy) convinced this hospital to offer another, comparable drug, which cost half as much for one month of treatment.
One of the op-ed doctors, in Radiolab’s interview, noted that another month of life (a month which might be rather miserable with the side-effects of this drug) did not seem worth $11,000, especially if the cost put the patient into debt.
This is an excellent story, well worth a listen. The producer weaved together concerns about skyrocketing health care costs with the philosophical question, “What is another month worth to you?” What is that extra month or year worth to us as a society, since Medicare and private health insurance companies (into which we contribute taxes and premiums) absorb much of these high costs? Can our health insurance systems absorb these rising costs? What if they can’t?
The story looked at these questions from several angles – from the perspective of doctors offering these treatments, to a wise and articulate ovarian cancer patient, to interviews from tourists in Times Square. As a pastor, I’ve wondered, “What about the angle of faith?” How might my Christian convictions inform the question, “How much is one more month of life worth?”
As the story wisely noted, putting a price tag on a person’s life is a squirrelly task. One more month of life in misery may not be all that important to one person but extremely important to another. On the one hand, I believe all life is God-given and therefore of priceless value. I feel uncomfortable making decisions about one’s life based on the cost of treatment.
On the other hand, I know life is impermanent. Our lives are like the flowers of the field, as Isaiah 40 observes. We fade. A good, long life is only 80-90 years, and that’s really very little time. But, that’s not the end of the story. Jesus defeated death by his resurrection. One of my foundational convictions is that there is life on the other side of death. I hold fast to the promise in 1 Corinthians 15 that “what is perishable” must give way to “what is imperishable.”
The promise of imperishable life with God makes death a little less frightening… or perhaps a little more hopeful. And so I wonder, “Would I want one more month of life if it meant a month of sickening side-effects and bankruptcy for my family?” Of course, my theorizing right now, as a young married woman with no children and good insurance and steady employment, is simply theorizing. I don’t know how my mind and heart might change if I had children or if I was face-to-face with the terror of cancer or if I had no savings with which to pay for treatment.
My hunch is that our fear of death – or lack thereof – plays into how we would answer this question for ourselves. So, as a pastor, walking alongside congregants going through the anxiety, pain and ugly side-effects of cancer treatment, my aim is to cultivate a sense of hope and trust in the God who loves us, no matter how much our cancer treatment costs, whether we pay big bucks for new cancer drugs or refuse further treatment.
Rachel Young is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.