Right now there are life-saving breast cancer drugs available which cost, on average, just 43p a day per patient, but they aren’t getting to the women who could benefit from them.
Recent research has found that bisphosphonates, drugs commonly used to manage osteoporosis, could also prevent one in ten breast cancer deaths by reducing the risk of breast cancer spreading, at an average cost of just 43p per day per patient.
However, a survey of breast cancer oncologists by the UK Breast Cancer Group (UKBCG) showed that less than half of clinicians are currently able to routinely offer bisphosphonates for this purpose.
We believe that clinicians are struggling to prescribe these cheap, effective drugs due to a lack of agreement and guidance over who in the NHS should be funding them and how.
Will I be able to access bisphosphonates?
Since the research was published in 2015, we have been lobbying for clarity on which NHS body is responsible for funding bisphosphonates to prevent the spread of breast cancer, and for them to be made aware of this responsibility. Thousands of you wrote to your MP in support of this.
It was announced in March that bisphosphonates were available across Scotland for women at high risk of recurrence of their breast cancer, and Wales followed suit in April.
However, the picture in England remains patchy. The Department of Health and Social Care says it is the responsibility of Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) to fund bisphosphonates to prevent the spread of breast cancer. But when we asked CCGs last year whether they were routinely funding this, only 42 (20%) said they were, and another 13 (6%) said they had agreed to, and were implementing that decision.
Since then NHS England’s Breast Clinical Expert Group has clinical advice recommending the use of bisphosphonates. And NICE has now published updated clinical guidelines on early and locally advanced breast cancer that recommend bisphosphonates for women at high risk of recurrence.
We hope that this will help to improve access to this potentially life-saving treatment for women across England.
We have gone back to CCGs to ask them again if they are funding bisphosphonates to prevent the spread of breast cancer and will let you know how the picture across England has changed later this year.
We’ll keep working to ensure that all women that could benefit from bisphosphonates – not just those at high risk of recurrence - can access them across the UK.
We have also been collaborating with the Department of Health and Social Care, the Association of Medical Research Charities, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (which licences off-patent drugs for new uses in the UK), NICE and others to look at how access can be improved to off-patent drugs for which new uses are discovered.
Together, we submitted a report to Ministers at the end of last year. It makes recommendations to ensure that, in future, it will be quicker and easier for off-patent drugs which research shows to be effective in new uses to reach the patients that will benefit from them. We will be working with these organisations over the coming months to implement the recommendations of the report.
For more on how bisphosphonate drugs can help prevent some women’s breast cancer spreading read our bisphosphonates patient information page.
"Is my life worth less than a postage stamp?"
That’s the question Jill has been asking herself.
Like many other women who could be receiving bisphosphonates to help prevent their breast cancer spreading, she’s been left wondering why her life is being put at risk when such a cheap, effective drug is available.
“I think we should be offered it, we should know about it. I’m really angry.
Somebody, somewhere needs to make a decision to say this can go forward.
It’s not an expensive drug. It’s bureaucracy and red tape stopping it being offered to us.”
Women like Jill shouldn’t be in this position. It is unacceptable that a lifesaving drug is not being given to the women who could benefit from it simply because of NHS red tape.