Let’s Hear It For Herceptin

In this month’s issue of The Atlantic there is an interesting article on Herceptin, the biological antibody used to treat cancers like the one I’ve got – meaning those that are positive for the Her2 onco-gene.  My course of 17 Herceptin treatments began with my 4th round of chemo and will wrap up sometime at the end of the summer.  A long road maybe, but being treated with Herceptin is much easier to bear than chemo:  there are no major side effects. Just glorious cancer-smashing goodness.


But the best thing about Herceptin – and something that was only discovered within the last 5 years or so – is that if its used to treat early stage Her2 positive breast cancer, it transforms it from one of the deadliest to one of the most beatable breast cancers, increasing your chances of survival from about 50% to close to 95%.  Pretty nice odds, I like to think.  In fact, these odds were probably the most reassuring thing I heard during those first few harrowing months after diagnosis. My godfather is a medical scientist, and in his words, “If you’re going to get stuck with breast cancer, this is the kind you want to get stuck with.”   


What I didn’t know until I read the article is that in many countries my chances of being able to access this life-saving treatment would be limited by my ability to afford it, or by my government’s policies.  The author of the article talks about the struggle of New Zealand’s early-stage breast cancer patients to gain access to Herceptin, where it was only approved for advanced stage metastatic patients, not as a “cure” but as a life-prolonging measure. She also talks about the U.S., where her own standard course of 17 Herceptin treatments cost her insurer about $60,000.  (What if she had been among the 47 million uninsured Americans?)   


And then there is a very brief mention of Canada:


“Most of Canada’s provinces approved Herceptin for early-stage patients within a few months of the May 2005 reports, much faster than the usual pattern.”


Way to go, Canada! That’s definitely something I’ll try to remember next time I’m shoveling snow and wondering why I live in this country.


Read more here:  http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200903/postrel-drugs




Filed under Living with Breast Cancer

6 responses to “Let’s Hear It For Herceptin

  1. Christine

    Leanne, you may be interested to know that Dr. Dennis Slamon, who is credited with the creation of Herceptin, will be speaking in Toronto on March 7 at The Princess Margaret Hospital. The event is free and all are welcome.


  2. Christine

    P.S. Here is the website for more info and to RSVP. http://www.pmhf.ca/Pages/NewsAndMedia/NewsStory.aspx?s=497

  3. Pingback: Chatelaine » Blog Archive » A wise man – and an incredible health researcher

  4. Inez

    Leanne, while Herceptin is a wondeful cancer drug for women who have the HER-2 antigen, it is not without its side-effects.

    My herceptin treatments are being delayed for 9 to 10 weeks, because of Herceptin-induced congestive heart failure. It took 2 over night visits to emerg and a Muga scan resultsshowing a decreade in function of more than 50% to get me to a cardiologist to diagnois this.

    Both Emerg visits came after an hour of laying in bed gasping for air. Fist visit resulted in a puffer and being sent home to followup with family doctor. Second visit was more thorough, detected fluid in lungs, and treated with antibiotics but no mention of heart trouble.

    It took the poor MUGA results for the oncologist to request an emergency referral to the cardiologist. He feels we can reverse these results and continue the Herceptin with constant monitoring in 6 to 7 weeks.

    This is the scariest time in my course of treatment. My mother died of heart failure, and she was only 53. She beat breast cancer, back in the mid sixties.

  5. Sandra

    Hey cousin,
    everything ok? you haven’t written in a few days and that’s unusual. Hope it’s just that you’ve been having lots of fun and living full speed 😉

  6. l.

    Inez – your story is a very scary one. My oncologist made me aware of the risks to heart function that are associated with Herceptin and I have MUGAs every three months. I don’t know if the 3-month MUGA schedule is standard protocol, and I don’t know why your cardiologist and oncologist seemed slow in drawing the connection between your symptoms and Herceptin in your case, but it sounds like a horrible ordeal for you to have lived through. You’re right, the wonder antibody is not without its risks — and in your case they were serious indeed.

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