Breast cancer awareness also includes who’s paying for campaigns

“Breast cancer awareness also includes who’s paying for campaigns” by Sharon Batt, Toronto Star.

Drug access campaigns have wide emotional appeal but they also reflect a genuine desire by patients with life-threatening diagnoses for a magic bullet. Fewer than 1-in-10 new drugs, however, provide therapeutic advantage over existing drugs.

A new campaign that caught my attention promotes awareness that “access to drugs in Canada is complicated and difficult to navigate.” The host organization, the Canadian Breast Cancer Network (CBCN), explains, “We want to highlight the struggles that patients and their families endure as they try to access life-saving medicines.”

The campaign features personal stories by women with metastatic breast cancer, a media kit instructing patients on how to use social media to tell their stories, and a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #MBCNoTime2Wait (MBC is Twitterspeak for metastatic breast cancer).

For those not familiar with the terminology, “metastatic” means the cancer is advanced and incurable. The claim that such patients must struggle against a complicated system to access “life-saving medicines” sounds heartless, but does the evidence really support it? At issue are the newest drugs, with eye-watering price tags; they are the ones patients may be denied.

I have some sympathy for the CBCN. I was a member of its founding board, back in 1994, when women from across the country formed a patient-run organization to speak for the interests of patients with breast cancer. But the organization has changed since then.

The change that troubles me the most began in 1999, when the organization formed its first partnership with a pharmaceutical company and launched a campaign to raise awareness of anemia in breast cancer patients — a condition the company partner happened to have a drug to treat. That drug turned out to promote tumour growth; in a clinical trial, breast cancer patients given Eprex died sooner than those given a placebo.

This is not an isolated case.

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