Daughters' fight to save father's life

Peter Calder with his daughters Maria and Loren.
Peter Calder with his daughters Maria and Loren. Photo credit: Supplied

When Maria and Loren Calder found out their father had lung cancer, they didn't think they would be the ones who would help to save him. 

"There are no words," Maria said. "You've got your healthy, hardworking Dad. We're all very close. As his daughters, you go into warrior mode."

In February 2015, then 62-year-old Peter was told his suspected laryngitis was cancer. Two rounds of chemotherapy and a dose of radiation worked at first, but couldn't halt its spread.

His daughters helped him tick his bucket list - hot air ballooning, and motor racing with Greg Murphy – but they hadn't given up on their dad, and also began to research treatments he wasn't being offered by his doctors.

It led them to the ground-breaking new immunotherapy drug, Pembrolizumab, known as Keytruda.

Though advanced melanoma patients can now get Keytruda for free, lung cancer sufferers like Peter pay a crippling $30,000 for a three-month course.

The Pharmacology and Therapeutics Advisory Committee has recommended Keytruda be funded by PHARMAC, but it's among more than 90 medicines waylaid on a waiting list. They include:

  • Fulvestrant for advanced breast cancer
  • Tocilizumab for rheumatoid arthritis
  • Denosumab for osteoporosis
  • Lixisenatide for type 2 diabetes

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Medicines New Zealand, which represents the pharmaceutical industry, said it shows PHARMAC doesn’t have the money it needs.

"We're a first world country with third world medicine access," General Manager Dr Graeme Jarvis said. "The saddest thing is that patients are waiting, and in some cases, they are clearly not receiving timely access to medicines that are available in other countries.

"Many studies prove medicines do pay for themselves. They reduce hospital costs and add life years to patients.  It's time to stop delaying patient access to medicines, and indeed doctors the tools to do their jobs."

  • If Peter lived in Australia, Canada, or the UK, Keytruda would be funded
  • New Zealand is 20th out of 20 with comparable OECD countries for innovative medicine access
  • In the UK, 80 percent of approved medicines get funded.  In New Zealand, it’s 13 percent
  • Kiwis wait 2.7 years longer than Australians for medicines

The Government says it is investing in health – giving PHARMAC an extra $60 million in this year's Budget to provide more access to medicines.

PHARMAC is working on a large number of funding proposals, prioritised by need, health benefits, and cost. It points out some medicines on the waiting list are no longer needed as it has funded other treatments that are just as effective.

Dr Jarvis rejects that, and notes that the waiting list is still quite extensive.

"PHARMAC do a good job of negotiating good prices on behalf of patients with its capped budget."

"PHARMAC needs to be funded at a better level to do the best job it can.The budget is only 5 percent of the total health budget. Just imagine the benefits that would impact patient lives, the health system and the wider economy if the medicines waiting list is fully funded," he said. 

Peter Calder didn't have time to wait for a deal to be done, but he was reluctant to spend his savings on Keytruda, conscious of leaving his wife with nothing.

His family talked him into it, and after one course, his tumours had disappeared. He said his oncologist couldn't believe his eyes.

"He said 'if Keytruda was on the hospital list I'd be giving it to you now'."

Without his daughters' research, Peter said he wouldn't even know about the drug.

"If you didn't have younger people looking after you, you'd just get caught up believing everything they said at the hospital. It's not their fault, that's all they can do."

"I'm lucky, we had money we'd saved for our retirement, but other people don't have that. How many people have suffered and had no chance just because [PHARMAC] didn’t fund it?"

Maria agreed. "You just think of other families that go to hospital and get sent home with no hope. [Keytruda is] pretty much why he's here now, and fighting."

This story has been created for Medicines NZ for better medicines access for all New Zealanders. You can find out more about its work here.