07 Dec 2011 --- Buying medicines online, conceptual computer artwork. --- Image by © Science Photo Library/Corbis

Dark Net Offers Lifeline for Cash-Strapped Cancer Patients

The web's underbelly isn't just for scoring illegal drugs—cancer patients are also using it to buy treatment meds

When it looked like Mike’s father was going to lose his battle with leukemia, he urged the 62-year-old to fly to France and buy a life-extending medication that was not yet available on the U.S. market. His dad, whom Mike describes as stubborn, refused and died shortly after.

This was in 1998, so when Mike’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer 10 years later, he took it upon himself to look into every available option.

The then-75-year-old was lucky enough to have insurance, and for a while there, things seemed to be going OK; she could afford to see doctors and her health plan covered 80 percent of costs. Yet after undergoing a double mastectomy and radiation treatments, as well as being placed on a medication regimen, the bills began to stack up—$170,000 in total, according to Mike. Even with insurance, they ended up paying $34,000 in out-of-pocket costs.

Mike worried there would come a time when he couldn’t afford the drugs. But luckily, things had changed since his father’s passing; not only could he source medicine unavailable in the U.S., but he found he also could order approved medication at a fraction of the cost and have it delivered to his front door.

“When my father was ill, we knew things were out there, but we didn’t have access to them. You would have had to physically travel to another country to get those things,” says Mike, who asked to omit his last name. “The Internet being what it is, you just have to poke around a little bit and you’ll find all kinds of things. …If there is something that’s available online that may be of utility for her, then you go ahead and try it.”

This is how Mike became one of the many Americans heading to online pharmacies to buy either medications that aren’t yet FDA-approved or available treatments that they can’t afford through traditional means because they don’t have insurance or can’t cover the co-payments.

Many of these pharmacies operate on the dark net, a network of websites only accessible via anonymizing software that encrypts your information and hides your identity. Though these channels have a reputation for facilitating trades of illicit and restricted drugs, people like Mike are also using them to get cancer medications and other therapeutic medicine at often staggering price reductions.

“The U.S. medical establishment really seems to be more about cancer as a business versus a holistic treatment, treating the entire human being,” Mike says of his mother’s care. “Some of the generics that she had been on, in the U.S. it’d be a $27,000- or $28,000-a-year prescription. You look at what you can do online and you get the same thing for about $1,800 to $2,000 per year. It’s 90 percent savings.”

Her doctors, however, were reticent. They knew she was buying medication online, and though they were interested in seeing for themselves how the unapproved drugs worked, they voiced a concern about their overall purity and safety.

Unlike ordering bootleg Viagra or Xanax, purchasing bogus cancer drugs could prove fatal. Mike admits it has always been a concern. “You don’t know if you’re buying chalk that’s been coated and pressed into a blue pill—you have no idea,” he says. So far, however, he’s pleased with the drugs’ efficacy.

Even industry authorities aren’t sure of what to make of this online option. The American Cancer Society doesn’t take an official position, but it does have guidelines to help people who are considering obtaining medication from Internet pharmacies.

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