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Hundreds of NI breast cancer patients denied life-saving drug that costs just 43p a day

Charity says uncertainty over funding is putting lives at risk

By Lisa Smyth

Published 29/09/2016

Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive at Breast Cancer Now
Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive at Breast Cancer Now

Hundreds of women in Northern Ireland are being denied a life-saving breast cancer drug that costs just 43 pence a day, it has been claimed.

The UK's largest breast cancer research charity has said the lives of 29 women here could be saved each year if bisphosphonates were prescribed to every eligible patient.

Breast Cancer Now estimates 850 women in Northern Ireland could receive the treatment each year.

But research carried out by the charity has found that only a quarter of eligible women - 215 patients - are getting the drugs, amid uncertainty over who should pay for the treatment.

Bisphosphonates are low-cost drugs that can strengthen the bone and prevent cancer spreading. Research suggests they can reduce risk of cancer spreading within 10 years by 18% and risk of death from the disease to 14.7%. The treatment is estimated to cost 43p per day per patient, for the medication, consultant time and subsequent monitoring, which is less than the cost of a second class stamp or pint of milk.

As well as saving lives, the charity has said that treating women with the drugs would also result in savings for the hard-pressed health service.

It estimates that at the end of 10 years, the health service in Northern Ireland would save £127,000 for each year of patients treated with the drugs.

This would be achieved by reduced needless expenditure on unnecessary tests and the ever-increasing costs of treating women with secondary breast cancer. However, a survey of cancer specialists across the UK - including oncologists in Northern Ireland - has found that three quarters are unable to prescribe the drugs due to confusion over who is responsible for covering the cost.

Breast Cancer Now is now calling on health bosses in Northern Ireland to produce a commissioning policy for the trusts to help provide clarity over funding.

Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive at Breast Cancer Now, said: "Our research suggests that clinicians in Northern Ireland are experiencing problems in prescribing bisphosphonates, and while they are not routinely available to all eligible breast cancer patients, women's lives are needlessly being put at risk.

"These are cheap and widely available drugs and the overwhelming evidence of their ability to save lives should have changed practice across the UK by now. But they are still sitting on the shelf, blocked by bureaucratic inertia. These barriers could be swiftly resolved and we're calling on Health and Social Care Northern Ireland to provide guidance to health trusts to ensure that these drugs can be made available."

Bisphosphonates are most often cancers that have started in another part of the body and have spread to the bone - secondary bone cancer. Bisphosphonate treatment can stop some types of cancer from spreading into the bone for some people.

The Breast Cancer Now study is the latest blow for cancer patients here.

While some of the best cancer doctors and researchers work here, patients in Northern Ireland are regularly denied access to the best treatments because of confusion over funding.

The situation was brought to light in 2012 when a west Belfast woman fighting breast cancer took her fight for a life extending drug to the High Court.

Carol Parkinson was told she did not meet the necessary criteria to receive the revolutionary drug Lapatinib, a drug that could prolong her life by a year.

However, health bosses never explained what the criteria was.

A spokeswoman from the Department of Health said: "Currently bisphosphonates are routinely used in the management of patients with advanced breast cancer with bone metastases.

"None of the commercially available bisphosphonates are currently licensed for use in adjuvant treatment of breast cancer. Clinicians in the Breast Oncologists Group in the north of Ireland are currently looking at the case for the introduction of bisphosphonate treatment for post-menopausal women with breast cancer."

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