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Breast cancer treatments not included in National’s cancer drug funding proposal

25 August, 2023

Interviews by Milly Smyth, adapted by Athena Li-Watts

Adele Gautier from Breast Cancer Foundation NZ is calling on political leaders to take funding new breast cancer treatments more seriously.

The National Party has announced it would bring back prescription fees, instead funding 13 cancer treatments that are available in Australia but not New Zealand. 

National’s Dr Shane Reti told 95bFM’s The Wire that they believe it is a better use of taxpayers’ money than paying $5 prescription fees for everyone, “including those who can afford to pay it themselves”.

Adele Gautier from Breast Cancer Foundation NZ told 95bFM’s The Wire that it is a good idea to fund drugs that have been found to have significant clinical benefits, but that National’s plan doesn’t go far enough. 

She said 14 effective breast cancer treatments are currently not available in Aotearoa, despite these drugs being the only treatment option for some patient groups.

Gautier believes the exclusion of these treatments can be attributed to National working off a list put out by the Cancer Control Agency, which has a specific focus on lung, bowel, kidney, head, and neck cancers. 

“To leave it off the list when there are really good drugs available for aggressive forms of the disease that affect young women. It's just not on.” 

According to Gautier, the funding of new breast cancer drugs is not taken seriously enough, especially considering the long-term toxic effects of chemotherapy. 

“We need a mindset that says we are going to do what is best practice and the standard of care internationally, not just muddle along with older drugs because they are cheaper.”

Breast Cancer Foundation NZ previously called for Pharmac, the agency who decides which medicines and pharmaceutical products are subsidised to make a drug to treat the HER2-positive subtype of breast cancer called trastuzumab available in Aotearoa.  

But Pharmac said it needed more clinical advice to make this decision, despite the drug being widely recommended.

Gautier argued that Canada, Australia, and the UK have already done the research to show new drugs like trastuzumab are safe and effective.

“Why do we have to start from scratch and understand that ourselves? It just doesn't make sense.”

Gautier is calling for the government to improve the process of acquiring cancer treatment drugs, as under the current process, she said it is a "fight for one drug at a time".

She emphasised the importance of catching cancer early, which is echoed in National’s pledge to extend the screening age from 69 to 74. But she said that this on its own is not enough to improve survival rates, especially for those with late stage cancer.

Gautier said political leaders' top priority to improve patient outcomes should be lowering the screening age to 40, in conjunction with ensuring they can receive effective treatment quickly.

Listen to the full interviews

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air