PBS push for stage-three melanoma drug

Melissa Iaria
(Australian Associated Press)

 

After witnessing family members succumb to cancer, Melbourne man Peter Gourlay was determined to do whatever it took to fight his own battle.

The retired marriage celebrant had a melanoma cut from his back in 2014 but the cancer returned three years later when he found a lump under his arm.

The 66-year-old was diagnosed with stage-three melanoma and underwent surgery to remove 15 lymph nodes.

Mr Gourlay said he naively believed he was “100 per cent cured” but in reality was left a 50 per cent chance of it returning as stage-four melanoma, whereby the cancer spreads and is often fatal.

He researched his options and found immunotherapy treatment would offer a 30 to 40 per cent reduction in risk the cancer would return post surgery.

The drug, Opdivo, was added earlier this month to new melanoma treatment guidelines by the Cancer Council Australia and Melanoma Institute Australia.

Previously the treatment was only available to those with inoperable stage-four advanced melanoma but its approval by the Therapeutic Goods Administration means patients like Mr Gourlay can receive the treatment earlier.

The only issue is the prohibitive cost. It is $160,000 for 26 treatments but Mr Gourlay’s oncologist helped arrange a co-payment agreement with the drug manufacturer reducing the cost to $100,000.

Mr Gourley, who’s among the first Australians to receive the immunotherapy, funded it using savings and superannuation, with his partner and mother chipping in.

With a family history of cancer that touched his parents and recently claimed the lives of his two sisters, his decision to try it was a “no brainer”.

“It strengthened my conviction that I wanted to do everything I could to live,” he said.

The federal government and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee (PBAC) will meet in July to consider listing the drug on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, enabling Mr Gourlay and similar patients to save about $4000 a week.

Latest data on Opdivo shows just over 70 per cent of stage-three melanoma patients had no recurrence of cancer after the first two years.

The drug works by harnessing the body’s immune system to help beat tumours by targeting the same immune pathways that tumour cells use to evade recognition and destruction.

Australia has one of the highest rates of melanoma in the world, with about 14,000 diagnoses each year and 1900 deaths.

Melanoma Patients Australia CEO Victoria Beedle urged PBAC to consider listing Opdivo on the PBS to ensure equitable access for patients.

Currently, the drug is only reimbursed on the PBS for advanced melanoma, advanced lung cancer and advanced kidney cancer.

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