Crowdfunding for cancer: The Kiwi patients relying on Givealittle

Typing 'cancer' into the Givealittle search bar makes for grim reading.

There are thousands of pages on the crowdfunding website from people suffering from all different types and stages of cancer, all with different (often eye-watering) donation goals. Some are old, some are young. A heartbreaking number are children.

What they all have in common is that they can't afford to survive - not without the kindness of strangers. 

Crowdfunding for treatment is a common practice in the US, where the lack of universal healthcare coverage means most Americans who file for bankruptcy do so because of medical bills.

New Zealand has a free public healthcare system in which hospital visits are free, accidental injuries are covered and most prescription medication is subsidised. 

Yet a growing number of Kiwis having to resort to crowdfunding websites to pay for their cancer treatment.

Tracey Elliott has been battling Stage 4 breast cancer for more than five years. This year, she and her husband Troy were told the cancer had spread to her brain.

Her only treatment option is Kadcyla - a drug not funded by Pharmac. Each infusion costs more than $8000, and Tracey needs an infusion every three weeks, working out at more than $120,000 a year.

The Elliotts had to turn to Givealittle to crowdfund the cost of the life-saving treatment.

"It's pretty heart wrenching knowing that tomorrow we're swiping our Eftpos card for over $9000," Troy says.

"I don't care how much money you've got, that's just out of everybody's realm. When we're both sitting on a sickness benefit because I want to be here for my wife as much as I can, that makes life pretty tough."

Troy and Tracey Elliott's Givealittle page.
Troy and Tracey Elliott's Givealittle page. Photo credit: Givealittle

Tracey says having to rely on the social welfare system has reconfigured how they think about money, and made them grateful for having enough to get by.

"Money's not as important as we used to think it was."

"Health is the most important thing," Troy agrees, adding it's "massively changed our perception".

To afford Kadcyla, the Elliotts intended to sell their Ellerslie property, and feel privileged they even have a house to sell. 

Tracey's illness has made Troy aware of New Zealand's "two-tiered health system", split between those who can afford unfunded medication and those who can't.

"We're a third world country when it comes to our health system," Troy says. "Fifty-five women die of breast cancer every month. We're 19 out of 20 in the OECD for access to new medicines. We're at a third of the average spend per GDP on medicine."

Radio personality Michael Kooge also uses Givealittle to fundraise for his cancer treatment. Years after surviving melanoma, he was diagnosed with glioblastoma - an aggressive form of brain cancer - in 2017.

He takes Temozolomide for chemotherapy every month, which is subsidised but has "crazy" side effects. The unfunded alternative, Avastin, would cost tens of thousands of dollars.

"I might need it at some point, it's unfunded, it is very expensive," he told Newshub.

"That is very scary for someone in this situation because there is no support, there is no money. It is unfunded by the public system."

Kooge's illness means he's unable to work normal hours. Any donations go not only to medication but food and expenses between appointments, as well as transport and accommodation.

He's considered moving to Australia, where Avastin could soon be freely available for glioblastoma patients. He bitterly regrets turning down private health insurance at 19, which would have paid for all or part of his Avastin treatments.

On August 7, Pharmac announced it intends to fund Kadcyla by December. It means the Elliotts no longer have to sell their house, and have just a few more months of having to fork out the cost themselves.

The day after the announcement, Troy told Newshub he and his wife are "ecstatic" - but this is just the beginning.

"We're not going to stop the fight, we're going to keep pushing. It's time to put the foot on the throat and push it."

The Elliotts will delete their wildly successful Givealittle page "as soon as we know we have the money".

Troy says they're both looking forward to returning to work and normality in the hopefully near future, but it's a bittersweet situation.

"We're humbled to be congratulated on our advocacy, but we've lost beautiful women who couldn't afford treatment."

He wants to see the Pharmac budget tripled so that more women like Tracey can be given the chance to survive.

"Cancers don't discriminate. They don't choose if you've got money or if you haven't got money. We know that currently Givealittle is there to help people like us. There are four and a half thousand Givealittle pages for cancer.

"What does that say about our society if everybody's having to put their hand out? It shouldn't be like that."