Amidst rising health care costs, could it be actually cheaper to pour more money into medical research and treatments? According to a new study from the American Cancer Society reported by the Associated Press, cancer is not only projected to become the leading cause of death worldwide this year, with 7.6 million deaths in 2008but it also costs society more than $900 billion a year if left untreated.

“Chronic diseases including cancer, heart disease and diabetes account for more than 60 percent of deaths worldwide but [receive] less than 3 percent of public and private funding,” according to Rachel Nugent of the Center for Global Development. Despite the yellow LIVE STRONG bracelets and pink ribbon bumper stickers boosting awareness, cancer and other chronic diseases still receive relatively little funding and the cost to society is immense.

 Modern cancer treatments rose in cost from $27 billion a year for the US in 1990 to $90 billion in 2008, due to new, more expensive drugs that can cost more than $5000 per month per patient. However, the ACS study showed the hidden costs of not treating cancer: the lost years of life for those who die early, disability costs for those unable to work, and other losses of productivity that not only hurt families but also are far more expensive for taxpayers in the long run. These costs easily run into the hundreds of billions.

 Researchers used World Health Organization and World Bank data to calculate “disability-adjusted life years”, how long people would have lived with and without a given disease or with and without treatment, and how much they would produce in each case. The $5000 a month the most modern drugs may cost has to be weighed against the chance of a patient being cured or the cancer controlled so they can return to work and make more than that, or raise a family and make America a better place to live.

“We are literally being victims of our own success”, said Dr. Julio Frenk, dean of Harvard’s School of Public Health. As more infectious diseases are brought under control or cured, people live longer and have more opportunities to get cancer, which we are then not always fully prepared to treat. The US is relatively well-off in terms of cancer cure rates, which have been slowly dropping, but nonetheless we struggle with the costs of proper care for patients. Consider the alternative, though: even greater economic costs from lost years of life, and greater social costs from grieving families and communities.