Alberta Health funds breast cancer test
Health: Oncotype DX test gives women chemotherapy choice
By: Roxanne Blackwell
| Posted: Wednesday, May 07, 2014 06:43 pm
“What did I do wrong?” was one of Beverly Beaulne’s first thoughts after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
The Okotoks resident said she was in a state of shock after learning that she would be facing a lumpectomy and radiation to try and rid her body of the cancer. As she was facing a second lumpectomy in January of 2012, her oncologist informed her that they were also suggesting she start doing chemotherapy.
“My mind was set on radiation,” Beaulne said. “I had hesitations about chemotherapy, I didn’t want to put poison in my body.”
Fortunately for Beaulne, a friend of hers contacted her about a procedure she had seen on the news. The Oncotype DX test uses a sample of the cancer taken from the patient to determine the likelihood of the cancer returning, as well as how effective chemotherapy would be.
Beaulne approached her oncologist about the test, but found out the costs would not be covered by Alberta Health. Beaulne opted to have a sample taken during her second lumpectomy, and paid the $4,000 out of her own pocket to have the sample sent to the Genomic Health Inc. laboratory in California where the test is performed.
Beaulne received good news from the test, with a low recurrence score of 24. From there she made the decision not to undergo the chemotherapy treatment, which can be physically damaging to the body.
But Beaulne was frustrated that chemotherapy was being pushed as a treatment option for her without the knowledge of whether it was the best option.
“What made me mad was that no one told me about this test,” she said. “It’s kind of a hush-hush thing. I don’t know why, maybe because it costs money.”
But women battling breast cancer in Alberta wont have to worry about that anymore, as Alberta Health approved the test for coverage earlier this year.
Beaulne said she’s happy that one less stress has been eliminated for those fighting the disease.
“They have a decision if they want chemo or not. They have a choice to help them, because before if they couldn’t afford the test they would have just done chemo.”
Funding the test was something that Highwood MLA Danielle Smith had been advocating for since early 2013.
Smith said Wildrose Health critic Heather Forsyth had spoken to doctors who were recommending the test be approved and felt Alberta was lagging behind. The test is already covered in Ontario, British Columbia, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Saskatchewan.
“Having doctors pushing for it, waiting to get a decision, knowing that it was recommended, knowing that it had been happening in other provinces, I just figured this was something that was important for me to advocate on,” Smith said.
“We all know women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer and have gone through chemotherapy, which is a very difficult treatment, very hard on the body. And if it’s not going to be effective for a certain number of women and you can do a simple test to be able to get a better course of treatment, it is really a no-brainer.”
Smith also met with a charity group, Rethink, who have been lobbying across Canada to have the test funded in each province.
“I introduced them in the legislature and talked about the story of the women that I had met,” Smith said. “They were very effective in bringing the information forward and doing the lobbying on it. It really was one of these issues that was so obvious to fund, and there was foot dragging happening on behalf of the Health Minister and his department on getting the approval.”
Health Minister Fred Horne said that the approval process for the Oncotype DX test was treated the same as every other, and that process takes time.
“As is true for any new technology, it undergoes the health technology assessment process. When something new becomes available we work with the university and Alberta Health Services to evaluate whether the technology should be introduced,” he said.
Horne also added “We don’t allow politics to enter those decisions. We rely on medical expertise.”
So far this year, 24 of the tests have been performed and covered, but Horne says the test isn’t beneficial in every case and a discussion should take place between physicians and patients.
If patients do opt out of chemotherapy, the test could ultimately end up saving money for the health-care system in unnecessary treatments.
“It’s hard to make a claim about what the impact could be,” Horne said. “It’s not about money, it’s about improving cancer care for patients and giving people options and the best treatment possible.”