This op-ed was originally published by Toronto Star on March 20, 2022.
There’s arguably nothing more devastating than hearing that you or a loved one has cancer. Two in five Canadians are expected to be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime and it’s the leading cause of death in Canada, but cancer’s prevalence does nothing to soften the blow of a diagnosis.
The impact of cancer cannot be underestimated. Every day, hundreds of thousands of Canadians face challenging treatment protocols, care for loved ones undergoing treatment, and pray for a cure. What may be the most distressing, however, is that promising breakthrough treatments exist and are starting to make a real difference in cancer care — but that many Canadians cannot get timely access to them.
Bringing New Hope — But Not to All
Recent medical advancements have led to a greater understanding of cancer and to new breakthrough treatments targeting cancer at the cellular or genetic level, most notably for melanoma, multiple myeloma, breast cancer, lung cancer, and prostate cancer tumours. These new treatments are extending patients’ lives and bringing new hope.
However, although Canada does well regarding the time it takes to approve breakthrough treatments for use, complex price-payment negotiations have made the process slow and difficult to complete. As a result, many patients face access delays.
These gaps in patient access have led to lost economic value and lost tomorrows for Canadians facing cancer and their loved ones. To explore the impact of delayed access, The Conference Board of Canada — Canada’s leading independent research organization — undertook a research initiative supported by Innovative Medicines Canada, which represents Canada’s pharmaceutical industry.
Exploring The Impact of Poor Access
The resulting study, “Tomorrow Can’t Wait: The Value of Breakthrough Cancer Treatments for Canadians,” highlighted just how dramatic that impact is.
“When we developed this report, our focus was to estimate the potential life years gained and the subsequent economic value to Canadians and the Canadian economy if all eligible Canadians had access to breakthrough cancer treatments for the five tumour types,” says Chad Leaver, Director of Health at The Conference Board of Canada.
The report found that 226,445 life years could’ve been gained, along with $5.9 billion in economic value, over the past decade. “This is about patients being able to maintain or resume employment on their cancer journey and to contribute to society and their community,” says Leaver. “And what this means for patients and families is more tomorrows — another laugh, another smile, another talk, another hug. These priceless outcomes may not be quantified in our study, and yet they’re undoubtedly the most meaningful.”
The Power of Hope
Better access also represents the hope that more time will allow patients to access the next treatment that may come along and potentially cure them, stabilize them, or put them into remission, says Eva Villalba, Executive Director of the Quebec Cancer Coalition. “Modern medicine has been moving so quickly that we see incredible progress,” she notes.
Access to scientific breakthroughs is also an important reminder of hope and empowerment for every Canadian, Leaver adds. “It’s important that Canadians know these treatments are available and are encouraged to learn more,” he says.
We could all use a little more hope these days. Patients facing cancer today do so under the compounding stress of the pandemic. “People with cancer and their families have to deal with not only the tremendous shock of diagnosis, but also the uncertainty and anxiety of navigating the health care system,” says Villalba. “They also have to manage the impacts on their personal and professional life as well as on their finances. All of this is difficult enough under normal circumstances, and now with the pandemic it’s even worse. Access to cancer care and services has been impacted, and people with cancer also have an increased risk of complications from getting COVID, so every moment counts.”
The Importance of Timely Access
Today more than ever, it’s essential for Canada to accelerate and provide equitable access to breakthrough cancer treatments. The Conference Board of Canada recommended four system-level reforms to increase timely patient access, including improving the current regulatory and price negotiation processes, changing the way therapies are funded, funding access to diagnostic services, and expanding and integrating systems that collect and share data. The solution is within reach, and we must do everything we can to improve access — because as those who have faced a cancer diagnosis know, tomorrow can’t wait.
Reach out to Chad Leaver, Director of Health to learn more.