December 31, 2012 8:32 am
Updated: March 5, 2013 3:49 pm

SPECIAL SERIES: Cancer Battle – The fight for drug funding


 CALGARY- Next year, over 186,000 Canadians will hear three frightening words: you have cancer.

But in our country where health care is free, there are still some potentially life-saving therapies the government won’t pay for.

In January 2010, Kelly Mah was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. Her doctor felt the young mother’s best shot at beating it was with a relatively new drug called Tykerb-but the catch was that she would have to pay for it.

The drug had been getting good results for patients with mestatic breast cancer, but cost upwards of $50,000 per year.

“It was really surprising to us that it was being covered in Saskatchewan and one of the Maritime provinces, but it wasn’t being covered by Alberta,” says her husband, Rick Stroppel.

He and Kelly’s family fought to have Tykerb covered in Alberta, and in February 2011 the province finally agreed-but in the end, it wasn’t enough.

“Unfortunately it was too late for my wife. Her cancer was too far advanced and she passed away on September 19, 2011.”

It’s a situation Dr. Jay Easaw has seen far too often. One of his patients, Ryan Westerman, faced a similar situation in 2008 when he was battling brain cancer. Easaw recommended Avastin, an expensive drug not covered by Alberta Health.

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“At the end of the day we don’t care how much the drug costs, it’s about ‘can we take care of this patient in front of us,'” he says.

The treatment ended up costing the Westermans over $60,000, paid for by fundraisers. It extended Westerman’s life by one year-giving him precious time with his young son.

That’s exactly what Brad Virginillo is hoping for, as he uses the same drug to battle his brain cancer.

“It’s interesting because I’ve had a couple of other chemotherapy drugs, but this one in particular was not covered by the province. I have to pay for it out of my pocket,” Virginillo says.

Fortunately, his wife’s health benefits are covering the $11,000 per month bill. But he questions why the province won’t step in and pay for it, when provinces like B.C., Saskatchewan and Manitoba do.

“I really believe if other provinces are covering it, why isn’t Alberta covering it? To me it should be fair for everyone.”

Cancer groups, doctors and patients are calling for change, but is anyone listening? Catch part two of our special report on Tuesday.


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