Pharmac widens funding for lenalidomide for those with blood cancer

Emma Holden was devastated when she learned she had multiple myeloma.

The 31-year-old, who lives in South Canterbury, was diagnosed with the form of blood cancer in June last year. When she first was told of the cancer she hadn’t heard of it before.

Multiple myeloma causes cancer cells to accumulate in bone marrow, where they typically crowd out healthy blood cells. It’s incurable.

For Holden, who’s normally quite an active person, it started with muscle pains in her leg. Eventually it got to the point she wasn’t able to walk on it. Then came the pain in her arm.

Lumps started appearing over her body – one, the size of a golf ball on her collarbone, another on her skull.

An X-ray and scans revealed several cancerous lesions- on her spine, hips, skull, clavicle and sternum. “I was prepared for the worst.”

Her diagnosis meant a move back to New Zealand from Melbourne to have family support. Her plan moving forward was a combination of chemotherapy and other traditional treatments. In January, she finished a stem cell transplant in Christchurch.

She had heard about the drug lenalidomide, used to treat multiple myeloma, from international cases but she knew it wasn’t funded here. Access would mean forking out about $100,000 a year.

But on Wednesday, that all changed.

The Government’s drug-funding agency Pharmac announced it would subsidise Revlimid – also known as lenalidomide – for maintenance treatment for multiple myeloma patients.

It represents New Zealand’s first and only maintenance treatment for those with newly-diagnosed multiple myeloma who have undergone a stem cell transplant.

For Holden, who was told she would be eligible for the drug by her haematologist it represents a brand new chapter in her life.

Without the drug, she’d still be going through a variation of her chemotherapy regime. Access means a better quality of life, suppression of cancer and hopefully a long-lasting remission period.

Dr Ken Romeril, founder of Myeloma New Zealand, said the organisation was pleased with the funding, as it had been pushing for it for some time.

Last year  the organisation took to marching on the steps Parliament on behalf of its patient groups, and lenalidomide had been mentioned in a petition taken to the Health Select Committee.

About 120 Kiwis each year would benefit from the funding, Romeril said.  There were up to 400 new cases each year. Currently, about 2500 people have been diagnosed with it – and there are higher rates among Māori and Pasifika people.

Holden was hopeful access to lenalidomide would be widened to not just those who’d undergone a recent stem cell transplant.

“I don’t believe the campaigning has stopped. For me, it’s really exciting … there’s been far and few between [moments of those] for the last 12 months. Since I started getting the pain it’s been pretty horrific,” she said.

“I’m really grateful. It’s crazy to think I’m not going to feel like this anymore. … I’ve always been a glass half-full person. I have an incredible partner of nine years.

“We have so many more adventures. We want to travel, build a house, start a family one day hopefully – having access [to lenalidomide] has improved all that.”

Pharmac director of operations Lisa Williams said it had funded 13 new medicines and widened funding for 32 other medicines since July, 2019.