The 2011 Michener Award finalists talk about their award winning stories and the people who helped make them happen – Michener Awards Ceremony, June 12, 2012.
A series of articles by the Globe and Mail exposed flaws and confusion within existing government policies concerning the funding of Herceptin, an expensive drug to treat breast cancer. The stories focussed on the way the Ontario government pays for cancer-fighting drugs and its failure to pay for treatment of small tumours in patients.
Your Excellencies, distinguished guests, colleagues,
Imagine you are a young woman who finds a lump in her breast. You are terrified at first, but slightly relieved to later learn the cancer is small. But what if it were too small?
Hundreds of Ontario patients found themselves in this predicament. Their tumours were deemed too tiny to receive the best publicly-funded drug treatment.
I first learned of this story from cancer patient Jill Anzarut and was immediately struck by the circularity of the scientific argument.
It wasn’t that the drug Herceptin didn’t work on women with smaller tumours; it was just that it hadn’t been studied on women with smaller tumours. That, to me, seemed terribly unfair, that, through no fault of their own, these patients could not access a drug proven to help prevent recurrence. How could this be?
Since scientists wanted to find the answer quickly, they tested the drug on patients with tumours greater than 1 centimetre. Ontario based its guidelines on the greater than 1 centimetre rule, shutting out about 120 women a year like Jill. And the drug was expensive. The cost to treat these women alone was an estimated $4.8-million a year.
I contacted oncologists, including the scientist whose work led to the drug’s discovery and calling across the country to learn how other provinces were handling this issue. Most realized that size didn’t matter – it was the biology of the disease that counted most. This was an aggressive form of breast cancer that had a tendency to return.
What this meant for patients like Jill – if she wanted the drug to be funded she would have to wait until her tumour doubled in size.
She told her story to The Globe, and later, on twitter. Rethink Breast Cancer, an advocacy group, blitzed government with emails and e-letters, which poured in by the thousands, supported by its Facebook fans.
For The Globe and Mail, however, the story came down to one question: Should patients who would benefit from a drug be denied it simply because they don’t fit clinical guidelines?
The Globe pursued it vigorously, exposing the policy vacuum and keeping the stories alive through patients, interviews and documents.
Colleague Karen Howlett, who is here tonight, kept the pressure up on Queen’s Park. Reporter Tamara Baluja interviewed other patients affected.
We were fortunate to have support from publisher Phillip Crawley, a quintessential newsman, Editor-in-chief John Stackhouse who gave us time and space to tell the stories and national editor Sinclair Stewart, a reporter’s champion who always elevates coverage.
Ontario recognized this was a problem, too.
It moved to not only help those with breast cancer but all cancer patients. Ontario’s New Evidence Building Program for Cancer Drugs has redefined access to cancer drugs for those medical grey-zone cases: patients who do not fit clinical guidelines but for whom there is growing medical evidence suggesting a drug may be of benefit.
For journalists, this is what it’s all about: tackling injustices and prompting governments to question their own policies. For a journalist, there is no greater reward than change.
Michener Awards Ceremony
June 12, 2012.