big pharma and small mercies

The chemotherapy room in the Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria is a clean, quiet place, where patients sit drowsing, reading, or listening to their MP3 players in reclining chairs, as the plastic sacks of drug solutions drip into their veins.

The chemotherapy room in the Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria is a clean, quiet place, where patients sit drowsing, reading, or listening to their MP3 players in reclining chairs, as the plastic sacks of drug solutions drip into their veins.

Conversations are generally hushed, and from time to time a restrained alarm chime sounds, as an IV bag comes empty, or a patient’s wait and recovery time comes to an end.

I recently passed a couple of hours there, for the second time, in the company of a relative, who is undergoing a course of treatment there. I have since talked with her about how the experience has proven to be much different than she and I imagined on our first visit to the Cancer Centre back in May of this year.

“It certainly isn’t easy or any fun,” she told me, “but it isn’t nearly as painful and traumatic as I thought it was going to be. I think more people should know that, so they aren’t as afraid as I was when they see this place for the first time.”

It is in the service of that wish that I am writing about this experience here, now. My basic message being that medical technology in dealing with cancer (or at least some forms of it) is now much more humane than the general public imagines.

To begin with, though, it has to be acknowledged that cancer is a vastly variegated disease, and the effectiveness and humaneness of its treatment inherently varies enormously from case to case.

Chemotherapy, for instance, is not a one-size-fits all enterprise; the drugs or drug combinations used differ very significantly from one case to the next, as so the responses of various patients to those drugs.

In my relative’s case, for instance, her first four rounds of treatment – which patients with similar treatment regimens typically find the toughest – went by comparatively easily, with only some saltiness in the mouth and some fatigue as the predominant reactions.

Her current course of treatment (I was there for her second installment of this second phase of therapy) has so far proven to be more difficult for her, with mouth cankers, bone pain, nausea, loss of appetite, and very extreme fatigue – so much so, that at one point she ended up shredding a house plant out of sheer frustration with her inability to get out and do anything.

Her response to the second go-round of that drug, however, was notably milder in the course of my stay with her, as the doctors modified the nature and duration of palliative follow-up medication to make life a little easier for her.

The experience has hardly been a walk in the park (though she did, in fact, manage to take a therapeutic walk in a park or two, over the time of my stay), but nothing like the horrors of vomiting and agony and weight loss we had both had in mind as the pending future when we first went to tour the centre.

As the nurse at her first chemo-injection pointed out, people’s image of chemotherapy has largely been shaped but well-meaning but hyper-dramatic and out-of-date Hollywood presentations of its effects.

This nurse had more than 20 years of experience in chemotherapy wards, and had actually been involved in the early trials of the anti-nausea drug my relative was about to be prescribed – a drug, she said, that had a huge effect on reducing the misery level of a great majority of the patients she had dealt with since then.

The trial of the drug, she said, had proven to be so overwhelmingly positive – patients getting the real drug were pretty much universally faring better than patients on the placebo version in the blind trial – that it became an ethical problem not to give everyone the same relief, and the blind trial had to be scrapped.

All very good news, of course, and what she said certainly turned out to be true in the case of my relative – though the other side of the positive equation is the ongoing extremely high price for that particular medication, even after all these years of large-scale production and sale.

You would have to be overwhelmingly naive to believe that the products of the big pharmaceutical enterprises are always so effective, or that the medical establishment is always so thoroughly governed by concern for patients’ interests above its own.

Big pharma is notoriously unregulated and unsupervised, and a domain of high-risk, main-chance artists in a super-competitive but hugely profitable enterprise.

Nor can the medical establishment itself be inherently trusted to seriously investigate methods of treatment or prevention of disease that run counter to its own interest and business case.

But only a hardened cynic would try to deny that good work is being done – though perhaps by bad people, and for bad reasons – by way of small mercies to the ill; and only an utter ingrate would deprecate the professionalism and humaneness of the floor staff at places like the Cancer Centre of the Royal Jubilee Hospital, without whom mercy would not exist at all.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, along with Yukon health and education delegates, announce a new medical research initiative via a Zoom conference on Jan. 21. (Screen shot)
New medical research unit at Yukon University launched

The SPOR SUPPORT Unit will implement patient-first research practices

Yukon First Nation Education Directorate members Bill Bennett, community engagement coordinator and Mobile Therapeutic Unit team lead, left, and Katherine Alexander, director of policy and analytics, speak to the News about the Mobile Therapeutic Unit that will provide education and health support to students in the communities. (
Mobile Therapeutic Unit will bring education, health support to Indigenous rural students

The mobile unit will begin travelling to communities in the coming weeks

Premier Sandy Silver, left, and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley, speak during a live stream in Whitehorse on January 20, about the new swish and gargle COVID-19 tests. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Swish and spit COVID-19 test now available in Yukon

Vaccination efforts continue in Whitehorse and smaller communities in the territory

Local poet Joanna Lilley is photographed at the Beringia Centre in Whitehorse on Jan. 20, where she will be hosting a poetry workshop on Jan. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Poetry for the ages

Workshop set for the Yukon Beringia Centre

Parking attendant Const. Ouellet puts a parking ticket on the windshield of a vehicle in downtown Whitehorse on Dec. 6, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is hoping to write of nearly $300,000 in outstanding fees, bylaw fines and court fees, $20,225 of which is attributed to parking fines issued to non-Yukon license plates. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City of Whitehorse could write off nearly $300,000

The City of Whitehorse could write off $294,345 in outstanding fees, bylaw… Continue reading

Grants available to address gender-based violence

Organizations could receive up to $200,000

In this illustration, artist-journalist Charles Fripp reveals the human side of tragedy on the Stikine trail to the Klondike in 1898. A man chases his partner around the tent with an axe, while a third man follows, attempting to intervene. (The Daily Graphic/July 27, 1898)
History Hunter: Charles Fripp — gold rush artist

The Alaskan coastal town of Wrangell was ill-equipped for the tide of… Continue reading

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. While Whitehorse Mayor Dan Curtis is now setting his sights on the upcoming territorial election, other members of council are still pondering their election plans for the coming year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Councillors undecided on election plans

Municipal vote set for Oct. 21

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decicions made by Whitehorse city council this week.

A file photo of grizzly bear along the highway outside Dawson City. Yukon conservation officers euthanized a grizzly bear Jan. 15 that was originally sighted near Braeburn. (Alistair Maitland/Yukon News file)
Male grizzly euthanized near Braeburn

Yukon conservation officers have euthanized a grizzly bear that was originally sighted… Continue reading

Mayor Dan Curtis listens to a councillor on the phone during a city council meeting in Whitehorse on April 14, 2020. Curtis announced Jan. 14 that he intends to seek nomination to be the Yukon Liberal candidate for Whitehorse Centre in the 2021 territorial election. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Whitehorse mayor seeking nomination for territorial election

Whitehorse mayor Dan Curtis is preparing for a run in the upcoming… Continue reading

Gerard Redinger was charged under the <em>Civil Emergency Measures Act</em> with failing to self-isolate and failing to transit through the Yukon in under 24 hours. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Man ticketed $1,150 at Wolf Creek campground for failing to self-isolate

Gerard Redinger signed a 24-hour transit declaration, ticketed 13 days later

Most Read