Let's Hear It For Herceptin

In this month’s issue of The Atlantic there is an interesting article on Herceptin, the biological antibody used to treat cancers like the one I’ve got – meaning those that are positive for the Her2 onco-gene.   My course of 17 Herceptin treatments began with my 4th round of chemo and will wrap up sometime at the end of the summer.   A long road maybe, but being treated with Herceptin is much easier to bear than chemo:  there are no major side effects. Just glorious cancer-smashing goodness.


But the best thing about Herceptin – and something that was only discovered within the last 5 years or so – is that if its used to treat early stage Her2 positive breast cancer, it transforms it from one of the deadliest to one of the most beatable breast cancers, increasing your chances of survival from about 50% to close to 95%.   Pretty nice odds, I like to think.  In fact, these odds were probably the most reassuring thing I heard during those first few harrowing months after diagnosis. My godfather is a medical scientist, and in his words, “If you’re going to get stuck with breast cancer, this is the kind you want to get stuck with.”     


What I didn’t know until I read the article is that in many countries my chances of being able to access this life-saving treatment would be limited by my ability to afford it, or by my government’s policies.  The author of the article talks about the struggle of New Zealand’s early-stage breast cancer patients to gain access to Herceptin, where it was only approved for advanced stage metastatic patients, not as a “cure” but as a life-prolonging measure. She also talks about the U.S., where her own standard course of 17 Herceptin treatments cost her insurer about $60,000.   (What if she had been among the 47 million uninsured Americans?)   


And then there is a very brief mention of Canada:


“Most of Canada’s provinces approved Herceptin for early-stage patients within a few months of the May 2005 reports, much faster than the usual pattern.”


Way to go, Canada! That’s definitely something I’ll try to remember next time I’m shoveling snow and wondering why I live in this country.


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