Government urged to fund GP visits for cancer patients

Thousands of terminally ill Kiwis are struggling so much to pay their bills they can't even afford to go to the doctor.

And now there's pressure on the Government to provide free GP visits for advanced cancer patients. But while new drugs are being funded which enable patients to live longer, the Breast Cancer Foundation is asking: can these patients afford to live longer?

One of those patients struggling every day is Cheryl Carr.

The solo mother was diagnosed with breast cancer 11 years ago when she was 36. Her daughter Grace was two.

She was living in Australia at the time and fought the disease for four years before it spread to her spine and could no longer be beaten. Not long after receiving the dreaded news she was forced to leave behind the business she ran and move home to New Zealand to be with her family.

"My daughter was six and she needed her mum, and so the aim has always been to live," she says.  

Seven years after her terminal diagnosis, living is a daily battle.

"The pain becomes so excruciating," Carr says. "I can't sit for too long, I can't stand for too long, I can't walk for too long."

Particularly in the colder months, her pain becomes so severe she's unable to get out of bed.

It means her daughter must help run the household. She cooks most of their meals and looks after her mother. It's a reversed role that no 12-year-old should be faced with.

"It has affected her greatly in more ways than one," she says.

Aside from the daily struggle of living with stage four cancer, there's another burden that weighs heavily on Carr's mind: money.

She survives on a disability pension and gets some help from the Government for Grace, but it's nowhere near enough.

"By the time I pay the rent on her room I have $23 left in which to clothe her, feed her, buy school books, uniform."

According to a report by the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation (NZBCF), 75 percent of Kiwis with advanced breast cancer have had a decline in household finances since their diagnosis. Half said their situation was a lot worse.

"It's the stress of having to deal with a terminal disease in the first place coupled with the side effects that people are facing, and then on top of that the money worries that they have with the fact that they have to quit work or reduce hours of work," says NZBCF CEO Evangelia Henderson.

With a reduced income, many patients like Carr are struggling to pay to go to their GP to get the prescriptions they need to manage their symptoms.

The Government reduced fees in 2018, but for Carr it's still a cost she can't afford particularly if she has to go more than once a month.

"The cost still of going to the doctor is me having to make the decision of do I feed us? Because that's one to two meals for me and my daughter," she said.

That's why the Breast Cancer Foundation is calling on the Government to provide free GP visits for patients with advanced cancer. Last month it presented a petition with 3500 signatures to the Health Select Committee.

Health Minister Dr David Clark told Newshub that New Zealanders with cancer can expect a good standard of publicly funded care, free of charge. But free GP visits for those battling terminal cancer is not something that's been discussed at a policy level.

After public pressure, the Government has made changes to the way cancer is treated in New Zealand. After it announced the establishment of a Cancer Control Agency, funding for new drugs and services is slowly improving.

"We know there are demands," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says. "We are improving cancer care across drugs, across treatment, across the Cancer Control Agency."

But Dr Chris Jackson of the Cancer Society says the Government also needs to look at how it can practically help those undergoing treatment.

"Many people would forgo treatment because they can't even afford the car parking at the hospital to get their chemotherapy or afford to fill up their car with gas to get across town to their treatments."

He says making GP visits free for patients with advanced cancer would be a small step in the right direction.

"Every day we see people who have extraordinary burdens upon them because of the impacts of cancer and I know that there is more we can do."

For Carr, the thought of carrying those same burdens in the years to come is difficult.

"Even thinking into the future I remain positive, but in the next seven years am I still going to struggle? Am I still going to struggle this hard? It shouldn't be this hard."

Her plea and the petition for free GP visits is now in the hands of the Health Select Committee. It would be a small gesture, but one that would go a long way in the lives of people like Carr battling the unimaginable.

A Givealittle page has been set up by Carr's friends to help ease the financial burdens she faces.