22 Dec 2008

Breast cancer specialists ready to cope

9:06 am on 22 December 2008

Cancer specialists around the country are busier than normal in the run-up to Christmas contacting breast cancer patients who may wish to take up the new offer of longer treatment with Herceptin.

From January, the Government will be paying for a full year of the drug for women, backdated to mid-November, instead of just nine weeks' worth.

Women who've already completed nine weeks on Herceptin, or any amount of treatment at their own expense, will have to choose whether or not to restart.

The head of the large Northern Cancer Network, Auckland oncologist Richard Sullivan, says those who finished treatment within the past six months should discuss the decision with their specialist.

He says a three-month gap is OK. But specialists will be making the call, and Radio New Zealand's health correspondent says they're expected to come under pressure from patients who had their last treatment longer ago.

With a greater risk of heart failure on longer courses of Herceptin, women on the drug for a year will need twice as many heart scans. But the Health Ministry's top cancer adviser, John Childs, says the extra monitoring can and will be done, and extra funding's available to meet the cost.

Dr Childs says it won't add to waiting times faced by other patients, for things like chemotherapy, because the change comes at a time when chemo waiting times are relatively low.

Meanwhile, Waikato medical oncology head Michael Jameson says many patients in his region are already on longer courses of Herceptin as part of clinical trials aimed at answering the question: is longer or shorter on Herceptin better?