Life-saving breast cancer drug stuck in 43p funding crisis

By Kitty Knowles 22 September 2016

Women are dying because of bureaucratic inertia.

It could be your mum, it could be your girlfriend, it could be you; but 1 in 8 women in the UK will develop breast cancer.

Of the 60,000 people diagnosed, around 78% will survive. That still leaves a devastating 22%.

Today, a drug that costs just 43p could help, says British charity Breast Cancer Now, but poor governance is preventing it from reaching patients.

“Women’s lives are needlessly being put at risk,” said Chief Executive Baroness Delyth Morgan.

“These are cheap and widely-available drugs … but they are still sitting on the shelf, blocked by bureaucratic inertia.”

The 43p funding crisis

Up to 27,000 women are being denied the low-cost, potentially life-saving drug, the group announced today.

Called ‘Bisphosphonates‘, these are a low-cost drug normally used to strengthen the bones in the treatment of osteoporosis, but could prevent one in ten breast cancer deaths.

Who could it help?

The simple treatment could be taken by all post-menopausal women diagnosed with primary breast cancer (at least 35,700 women a year).

If given routinely to all eligible women in the UK, an extra 1,180 women each year could be prevented from dying from breast cancer.

The drugs cost on average just 19p each, and can be taken on average for three years, either as a daily tablet or injected every six months.

The total cost of the treatment, including time spent with doctors, would be around 43p per day per patient.

Why isn’t it available?

Three quarters of UK breast cancer specialists said they were unable to prescribe it because of confusion over who should fund it, a survey found.

While the drug has been backed by bodies including the UK Breast Cancer Group and NHS England’s Breast Cancer Clinical Reference Group, a lack of national commissioning policy is holding doctors back.

For example, in England, it remains unclear whether these drugs should be paid for by the hospital trust or the local clinical commissioning group (CCG), or whether it might be funded by NHS England (as many cancer drugs are).

What’s more if rolled out this would also save the NHS more than £15m over 10 years, says Breast Cancer Now, as patients would no longer require as many specialist scans, or further costly cancer treatments.

“Not only can these save lives but they would reduce needless expenditure on unnecessary tests and the ever-increasing costs of treating women with secondary breast cancer,” said Professor Rob Coleman of the South Yorkshire Cancer Strategy Group.

What needs to happen now?

Breast Cancer Now wrote to NHS England in March to ask for clarity, but is yet to receive a response.

All national health bodies must take responsibility now and provide clear guidance on who should fund the much-needed Bisphosphonates – that includes NHS England, NHS Wales, and Northern Ireland health boards.

1 in 8 women you know will likely get breast cancer. Do you want their life to be gambled for the sake of 43p?

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