Why is Keytruda funded for melanoma but not lung cancer?

Is it fair that melanoma gets funded for a particular drug while lung cancer doesn’t?

Well, that’s exactly what’s happening with Pembrolizumab, or Keytruda as it’s more commonly known. Melanoma groups lobbied the Government hard to get the drug funded and in September last year, they succeeded – but spare a thought for lung cancer sufferers, who have to fork out thousands of dollars to get the same drug.

Jason Guttenbeil was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in April. He had never smoked and the father of four was given grave news – he only had months to live, and his only option in the public system was palliative chemotherapy.
Mr Guttenbeil was dying in front of his family. It was game over until his oncologist told him about another treatment option – something that could prolong his life if he could afford it.

The Guttenbeil whanau and friends rallied around, they started a Givealittle page, had fundraisers and managed to come up with $60,000 to get him started on Keytruda, a targeted treatment for lung cancer.

Mr Guttenbeil says the difference this treatment has made to his quality of life is incredible. “I feel like a new man, and that’s Keytruda – for me it’s been a wonder drug. Before I was hoping to see one Christmas with my family, hopefully now I can see many more.”

Lung cancer is the biggest cancer killer in New Zealand. More Kiwis die from lung cancer than prostate, breast and skin cancer combined. Philip Hope, chief executive of Lung Foundation NZ, says many lives could be prolonged if lung cancer had the same support as melanoma.

Māori lead the pack when it comes to lung cancer. Māori women are four time more likely to develop lung cancer than non-Māori, while Māori men are three times more likely to get the disease.

On the other hand, Māori are six times less likely to get melanoma.

Mr Hope thinks there is a huge inequity there. “If the intention of the Treaty is for Māori to have equal rights and equal access to things like health, we’re failing tangata whenua in New Zealand.”

Pharmac say they are still considering whether they will fund Keytruda for particular types of lung cancer, they say it’s unclear if it will increase how long people will live with end stage lung cancer.

It’s not a silver bullet but it’s given Mr Guttenbeil more time with his whanau, something that seemed impossible two months ago.

The Hui

Click on the link below to view the documentary about Jason Guttenbeil, including comments from Lung Foundation New Zealand.