Fighting Blood Cancer on the Hill

Improving access to therapies is critical to helping blood cancer patients

When doctors diagnosed Lori Bremner with acute myelogenous leukemia as a college student in 1977, a time when patients with that disease had a seven percent chance of living five years. The only hope came from several new therapies that would help her body fight the blood cancer.

“Not many people survived leukemia at that time, but here I am today,” Bremner said. “I was fortunate to have had access to cutting-edge therapies, and all patients with blood cancer today deserve the same.”

Last week, Bremner took that message to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., as part of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network’s (ACS CAN) annual Leadership Summit and Lobby Day.

BLOOD CANCER ADVOCATE LORI BREMNER ATTENDED THE RECENT AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY CANCER ACTION NETWORK’S LIGHTS OF HOPE EVENT IN WASHINGTON D.C.

BLOOD CANCER ADVOCATE LORI BREMNER ATTENDED THE RECENT AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY CANCER ACTION NETWORK’S LIGHTS OF HOPE EVENT IN WASHINGTON D.C.

Leading Causes of Cancer Death in the United States

Today, blood cancers as a group are the second-leading cause of cancer death in the United States, behind only lung cancer. While prevention efforts, like smoking cessation, have reduced the number of annual deaths from lung cancer, no known measures can prevent blood cancer. As scientists seek to better understand these diseases, innovative treatments remain patients’ best weapons.

For instance, the median survival for patients with multiple myeloma—a cancer of plasma cells, which help us fight infection—increased nearly twofold between 1992 and 2010 because of treatment advances. Such improvements in survival, though, rely upon affordable access to these blood cancer therapies.

While intravenous (IV) treatments were once the mainstay, over the past decade, new oral therapies have become more commonly used to treat blood cancers and are sometimes patients’ only option. But insurers often make patients pay more for oral medicines than IV cancer treatments, which are typically given in hospitals or doctors’ offices. Insurers also often place blood cancer medicines in so-called “specialty tiers,” which can require patients to pay 26 percent of the costs on average.

Having been treated with oral and IV therapies, Bremner sees the benefits of the former. Beyond the logistics of missing school and work and being driven to and from treatments, IV therapies added physical and emotional stress at an already trying time.

“I dreaded going to the doctor and getting stuck by those needles, and my father would cry quietly during my IV treatments,” Bremner said. “It’s unconscionable that a patient can’t access a treatment that could improve their quality of life because of high cost-sharing.”

It’s unconscionable that a patient can’t access a treatment that could improve their quality of life because of high cost-sharing.

A bill introduced last year could ensure equal coverage for all types of cancer medications: the Cancer Drug Coverage Parity Act. Bremner is hopeful Congress will approve the bill this year.

At the close of the ACS CAN summit, cancer advocates lit 24,000 luminaries around the Capitol Reflecting Pool during the Lights of Hope ceremony. “Every bag had a name of someone who is living with cancer or whom we have lost to cancer,” Bremner said. “It’s a powerful visual for legislators.”

Bremner hopes that more cancer patients and survivors will add their voice to ACS CAN’s efforts to help make treatment access for all cancers a national priority.