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How Do Oncologists Make Money?

Updated on March 14, 2016

The Cost is Staggering

Nearly 20 percent of the Gross Domestic Product in the United States is spent on health care. A large chunk of this money is used to fight cancer.

The annual cost for cancer diagnosis and treatment is estimated to be about $125 billion and climbing.

New drugs are continually coming onto the market and many of them carry a very high price tag. Some oral chemotherapy pills may run about $10,000 a month, and patients often take these medications for the rest of their lives.

Many people are rightly horrified when they discover that cancer is an extremely profit-driven industry. We've been conditioned to view doctors and hospitals as altruistic health care partners that exist for the sake of saving lives, regardless of the bottom line.

We also tend to disregard the financial incentive when it comes to oncologists prescribing multiple rounds of chemotherapy, even when it's clear these drugs aren't going to bring about a cure.

Drugs given through a chemo port are not dispensed at the corner drugstore. There is no middleman, which, in this case, would be a safeguard. The doctor buys these drugs directly from the pharmaceutical firm and then sells them to the patient, typically at a staggering markup.

By one estimate, about 70 percent of an oncologist's salary is from drug sales. The average oncologist makes $285,000 a year, according to a publication known as the 2011 Physician Compensation Report. However, this amount of compensation varies widely, depending upon where a doctor is employed. Those working in big city medical centers pull in about $375,000 in annual earnings.

Chemotherapy can cost $10,000 a month.
Chemotherapy can cost $10,000 a month. | Source

The Built-In Conflict of Interest

Most cancer patients put their lives into the hands of an oncologist, whom they sincerely believe will pull all stops in an effort to make them well again. They have no idea about the intimate ties the exist between their doctor and the pharmaceutical firms.

These corporate interests set the standard for health care. Doctors are schooled in the model that toxic drugs are the only answer to cancer. The efficacy of these medications is determined by large, drug-funded studies that the doctor reads in medical journals supported by pharmaceutical advertising.

There are many perks as well, as pharmaceutical firms offer lucrative speaking opportunities and free trips, such as Caribbean cruises thinly disguised as seminars.

Even if your doctor has doubts about the course of your treatment, suggesting another form of therapy, such as venturing into the realm of alternative medicine, is strictly outlawed. Even if the doctor would never submit to chemotherapy himself (in one poll, 81 percent of Canadian oncologists who treated lung cancer patients said they wouldn't), this "standard of care" is all they can legally offer.

However, two countries in particular, Mexico and Germany, don't have laws that prevent the use of various alternative treatments, sparking a thriving medical tourism industry, in which American and some European cancer patients elect to seek care outside the country.

Chemotherapy Doesn't Cure Metastatic Cancer

Despite the fact that chemotherapy doesn't cure metastatic cancer, and all oncologists know this, highly toxic drugs are often given, despite the fact they won't lead to recovery. There's also a growing body of evidence showing these drugs may harm the patient by compromising their immune system, and allowing the tumors to grow faster.

Although the doctor may honestly believe the chemo may help the patient by giving him "hope," as he comes to term with his mortality, there's also the built-in problem that terminal cancer patients are highly profitable customers.

Patients with advanced cancer are often seen in an oncologist's office. They are also given many medications and diagnostic procedures in the last months of their lives.

An honest doctor will tell them that these measures, at best, are only palliative.

Expensive, high-tech cancer care.
Expensive, high-tech cancer care. | Source

Cancer Care and Hospitals

This year more than 1.6 million Americans will learn they have cancer, a disease that now affects between 33-50 percent of the population at some point in their lives, depending upon whether they are male or female. Women have a slightly lower risk of cancer, compared to men.

Cancer patients typically visit hospitals for a variety of in-patient and out-patient procedures, such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and lab work. Chemotherapy patients often receive a shot of Neulasta, a drug to raise their white blood cell count so they aren't as susceptible to infection. This medication may run as high as $15,000 a dose, because it's delivered in a hospital setting.

Most hospitals now have special cancer centers with sophisticated technology where patients receive chemotherapy and radiation.

Video on the Cancer Industry

Stories of Abuse Starting to Surface

Recently, in Detroit, Michigan, an oncologist who practiced at a string of cancer centers he owned, was arrested on the charge that he gave chemotherapy to people who didn't need it, some of whom did not even have cancer because he misdiagnosed them. He is also accused of administering unnecessary treatments to patients in remission.

In one instance, according to published reports, he told a 76-year-old woman with lung cancer, which carries a particularly poor prognosis, that she had a 70 percent chance of beating the disease if she had treatments. However, she died within a few months.

Cancer care is a lucrative business.
Cancer care is a lucrative business. | Source

Patients Continue to Suffer

This profiteering is now being shouldered by a very sick and desperate population. Insurers are demanding that patients foot part of the bill in the form of higher co-pays. These add up, and, combined with lost wages, can force a family into financial ruin. Medical bills are a leading cause of bankruptcy.

For instance, one relatively new prostate cancer drug can cost upwards of $6,000 a month and some patients have trouble obtaining coverage.

The real tragedy is that these expensive treatments are often ineffective, closing off avenues that might have helped. Some patients plan to exhaust conventional therapies before turning to alternative treatments, which many survivors report have allowed them to regain their health. However, this may not be an option to someone who's already been through the system, because the standard treatments exact a heavy toll on their body and on their wallet.


These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These products are not meant to diagnose‚ treat or cure any disease or medical condition.

This is intended as an educational and informational article, and is not to be construed as medical advice. People with health concerns should consult a licensed medical practitioner. The author claims no responsibility for treatment decisions or outcomes.


Submit a Comment
  • ologsinquito profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago from USA

    Hi Writer Fox, thank you so much for reading. I wish there were more effective treatments as well. They money-making aspect only seems to be getting worse.

  • Writer Fox profile image

    Writer Fox 

    6 years ago from the wadi near the little river

    I wish there were something we could do to lower the costs of drugs. You are so right that the pharmaceutical industry is making billions and people who cannot afford the life-saving drugs are dying. I wish there were a solution. Voted up!

  • ologsinquito profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago from USA

    Hi tobusiness, thank you so much for reading. Some people think the US has the most advanced healthcare in the world, but I'm not so sure. The profiteering is disgusting.

  • ologsinquito profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago from USA

    Hi FlourishAnyway, there is so much profiteering and it makes me ill to think of it, and how patients are suffering because of this. Thanks for reading.

  • FlourishAnyway profile image


    6 years ago from USA

    This is so sad. I agree with you. Medicine is a big business, and it does not always benefit the patient. When I was undergoing a diagnosis for MS, I had to rule out some other things, including leukemia. I sat in an oncologist's office and watched the very sad money train of extremely ill patients getting chemo treatments. In the end I thanked my lucky stars I "only" had MS. MS drugs have their own conflict of interest with neurologists. I've learned that the hard way. (Those drugs are about $1500 a month, and doctors get "speaking fees" and consulting fees for referring patients.) People don't realize there are kick-backs involved.


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