B.C. couple says cancer treatment costing more than $1,200 a month, calls for more support

A Coquitlam couple says they’ve been paying more than $1,000 a month for a cancer treatment, even though the drug that’s not being fully covered is already approved and funded in B.C.

They’re now calling for transitional funding support for families who find themselves facing the same costly and stressful situation.

Kari Taylor Atkins said the latest type of treatment she’s undergoing for metastatic breast cancer has made a difference.

“So far it’s working, and I’m not having terrible side effects,” she said. “I am about as well as can be expected.”

UNEXPECTED COST

Taylor Atkins was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2016, and underwent treatment which included the drug Herceptin. Three years later, she learned the cancer had spread to her liver and bones. Then, in 2020, brain tumours were detected. After surgery and rounds of radiation, last fall Taylor Atkins started a new treatment combination, which again included Herceptin.

However, unlike in the past, not all of the drug’s cost is being covered.

Her husband Matthew Atkins said they have been left paying about $1,250 a month for the treatment.

“Herceptin is like the backbone of the treatment, and it comes in combination with other drugs,” he said. “The two new drugs are not funded.”

WAITING FOR ANSWERS

Atkins said the cost of the two new drugs involved in the treatment is being covered by the manufacturers on compassionate grounds, while price negotiations take place with the government.

“Until that’s done and the combination is then rolled out as an official line of treatment on paper, that line of treatment doesn’t exist,” he said. “At the beginning we were told it probably could take four to six months. That was eight months ago. The last we were told was it could be another two years. Nobody knows.”

The couple is only getting 50 per cent coverage for Herceptin, and is calling for transitional funding to be made available for families who find themselves in this position.

“There’s only so much radiation and surgery that a brain will take,” Atkins said. “So ultimately without this drug, it will kill her. It will kill people like her.”

Taylor Atkins said their doctor has suggested they try an online fundraiser to help pay for the treatment.

“What should happen is nobody in British Columbia should be in a situation where they ever have to take a phone call from the pharmacist that says…your drugs are ready, I just need to make sure you have room on your credit card for me to be able to bring the drugs to the infusion clinic,” she said.

“It’s really awkward to understand that they’re prepared to take care of you as long as you’re not really sick…it feels a little bit like you’re being put out to pasture because there’s not much left. And how awful is that?”

MINISTRY SAYS BC CANCER MAKES FINAL CALL

CTV requested an interview with health minister Adrian Dix, and received an emailed statement in response, which said the combination of the three drugs received positive conditional recommendation from the pan-Canadian Oncology Drug Review process last November.

“In British Columbia, the final reimbursement decision is made by BC Cancer based on several factors, including the pan-Canadian recommendation and the outcome of price negotiations,” the ministry said.

“BC Cancer does have a Compassionate Access Program, which does review applications on a case-by-case basis. We do recognize that requests which have significant financial impact may be declined, as decisions should consider the benefit to the individual as well as the resource implications for the broader patient population.”

The couple also reached out to the health ministry through their MLA, and received a response letter in March which encouraged them to appeal to the drug company again “to reconsider granting compassionate access”, something they say they have already done twice.

“It is important to reiterate that BC Cancer has not yet made a decision regarding coverage of HER2 Climb (the treatment)…it appears the main limitation is the cost of treatment, with the report indicating that a 94 per cent reduction in price would be required for this combination of drugs to be cost-effective in the third-line setting,” the letter stated.

“Price negotiations are currently ongoing between the manufacturer and the jurisdictions.”

'I JUST WANT TO LIVE A LONG AND HAPPY LIFE'

Both Atkins Taylor and her husband are self-employed. They have had some initial funding help from family, but are facing an unknown wait and a growing expense.

“I just want to live a long and happy life, like we all do,” she said. “I would really like for this stress about this particular issue to just magically disappear, and it can if the government chooses to help not just me, but everybody in this same situation.”