MaltaToday | 10 August 2008

NEWS | Sunday, 10 August 2008

Breast cancer patients still denied free cure

Karl Schembri
Women suffering from breast cancer and prescribed Herceptin by their doctors are still waiting for the government to honour its promise to include the drug on the list of free health services as they fork out thousands of euros to get their treatment.
Since last April, parliamentary secretary for health Joe Cassar has been promising to offer for free the hefty treatment for breast cancer, but four months later the drug is still off the national health service.
A spokesman for the minister confirmed the decision to include Herceptin taken last April, but added that the junior minister could not give a date from when it will be available.
“There’s a process before it is included on the government formulary and we are in the process of finalising it,” he said. “But I can’t give a date.”

The breast cancer lobby group, Action for Breast Cancer Foundation (ABCF), said the delay was unacceptable.
“This is inexcusable,” chairperson Helen Muscat said. “There are women out there who need this drug, who could benefit from it, but can’t pay for it.
“When they are told they need this drug but can’t get it, that’s extremely frustrating. These women can’t wait for treatment, they need help now.”
Breast cancer victims have to pay up to €54,000 a year for a full course of Herceptin, with the majority of them having no option but to give up on the vital treatment.
The drug is prescribed to around 35 per cent of breast cancer victims who have tumours that are Herceptin receptive, meaning that the tumours respond positively to the drug.
Muscat said her NGO is constantly approached by women seeking financial help for the treatment, although the actual number of patients who need Herceptin but can’t afford it is difficult to figure out.
“We only know about the cases of women who are seeking help to finance their Herceptin treatment, but we don’t know how many others are losing out on it.
“It’s clear to all of us who have been lucky to come out of breast cancer alive that these are very vulnerable people and God knows what this procrastination is doing to their minds. They must feel they are missing out on an available cure. We have to sort this out immediately.”
Around 245 women a year are diagnosed with breast cancer in Malta, meaning that Herceptin could save the lives of around 85 of them.
The drug, which is administered intravenously, is said to half the risk of a tumour returning after surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy, when used for a year either in conjunction with other drugs or afterwards.
Trials in Britain showed that out of the women in the Herceptin trial, 9.4 per cent found their cancer returned, compared with 17.2 per cent who got a placebo instead of the drug.
Research published in the medical journal, the Lancet, in January last year, found that Herceptin improved the survival rate of breast cancer patients.
The Herceptin Adjuvant study followed 1,703 women given the drug one year after surgery and chemotherapy and a control group of 1,698 women who did not receive it after standard cancer treatment.
After two years, 59 women on Herceptin had died compared with 90 in the control group.
However, the study also found further evidence that the drug can cause heart damage in some women.

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