Cost Paramount When Choosing Metastatic Breast Cancer Treatment

Sharon Worcester, MA

September 29, 2022

While efficacy and quality-of-life outcomes are similar across commonly used treatments for endocrine-refractory or triple-negative metastatic breast cancer, the costs of these agents vary widely, a recent analysis reveals.

Notably, the authors found that using standard chemotherapy agents in specific sequences can help reduce overall costs and improve the value of care.

Given "razor thin" differences in outcomes, cost should become a major consideration, the researchers conclude.

"As a society, we urgently need more strategies to reduce cancer drug costs without compromising outcomes, and our analysis provides quantifiable evidence to help providers choose lower priced, but equally effective sequences of drugs," first author Stephanie B. Wheeler, PhD, from the University of North Carolina (UNC) Gillings School of Global Public Health, explained in a press release.

Although the drugs Wheeler and colleagues studied are reimbursed in the metastatic breast cancer setting, "the optimal sequencing of them has been unclear, which has led to considerable variation in physician preference and practice," Wheeler said.

In the study, published earlier this month in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, Wheeler and colleagues estimate the cost-effectiveness of different therapeutic options from the first- to third-line setting for this patient population.

The researchers used three dynamic microsimulation computer models to predict how hypothetical sets of 10,000 patients with specific types of metastatic breast cancer would respond to various therapy types and sequences. The cohorts were grouped according to prior chemotherapy exposure: cohort 1 had no taxane or anthracycline exposure, cohort 2 had taxane and anthracycline exposure, and cohort 3 had taxane exposure but was anthracycline-naive.

On the basis of feedback from oncologists, the investigators focused on different agents in the three cohorts: paclitaxel, capecitabine, or pegylated liposomal doxorubicin for cohort 1; eribulin, capecitabine, or carboplatin for cohort 2; and pegylated liposomal doxorubicin, capecitabine, or eribulin for cohort 3.

Overall, the models showed "nearly indistinguishable differences" in quality of life. In fact, the "razor-thin incremental differences in quality-adjusted survival" across the treatment sequences often amounted to differences of only a few days or weeks, the authors note. They add that even in the most extreme of cases, 3 weeks separated the best and worst options for quality-adjusted life-years.

But the models did show considerable differences in costs.

The authors found that for cohort 1, treatment with paclitaxel followed by capecitabine and then pegylated liposomal doxorubicin corresponded to the highest expected quality-adjusted life-year gain and the lowest costs — $686 per month, vs the highest cost option of $1765.

For cohort 2, treatment with carboplatin followed by capecitabine and then eribulin corresponded to the highest expected quality-adjusted life-year gain and lowest costs.

For cohort 3, treatment sequences beginning with capecitabine or pegylated liposomal doxorubicin followed by eribulin was most cost-effective.

Notably, the authors found that eribulin — the most expensive treatment with a high expected adverse event burden — performed particularly poorly in the two cohorts in which it was evaluated, "suggesting it should be used last in a sequence, on the basis of cost-effectiveness alone."

In other words, "more spending on cancer care does not necessarily confer greater health benefits," said Wheeler, also a professor of health policy.

"I hope our study will help expand the framework that we use to make these decisions from one where we just think about the biologic action of the drug to one where we also consider the bigger picture of what the treatment experience is like for the patient, including their financial burden, investment of time, and side effects," study co-author Katherine E. Reeder-Hayes, MD, section chief of breast oncology at the UNC School of Medicine, said in the press release.

The results demonstrate that therapeutic decisions in the endocrine-refractory or triple-negative metastatic setting "may prioritize costs without affecting clinical outcomes" and highlight the direct impact that a "high-quality, transparent, and accessible economic analysis" can have on patient care, Scott D. Ramsey, MD, PhD, of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, and colleagues write in an accompanying editorial.

Following the treatment sequences outlined in this study would "reduce patient financial burden and save our health system hundreds of millions of dollars annually," the editorialists write.

As for next steps, Wheeler and colleagues have developed a financial navigation program to help patients manage their out-of-pocket cancer care costs and are currently scaling up the intervention in nine rural and nonrural oncology practices across North Carolina.

The study was supported by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention through the Prevention Research Centers Program. Wheeler has received research funding and payment for travel, accommodations, and expenses from Pfizer. Ramsey has had consulting or advisory roles and has received research funding and/or payment for travel, accommodations, and expenses from Bayer, Genentech, AstraZeneca, Merck, GRAIL, Seattle Genetics, Biovica, and/or Flatiron Health. Because of their editorial roles at the journal, the Journal of Clinical Oncology recused Wheeler and Ramsey from having any role in the peer review of their respective manuscripts.

Sharon Worcester, MA, is an award-winning medical journalist based in Birmingham, Alabama, writing for Medscape, MDedge and other affiliate sites. She currently covers oncology, but she has also written on a variety of other medical specialties and healthcare topics. She can be reached at or on Twitter: @SW_MedReporter.

For more news, follow Medscape on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.