By Professor Dr. Liam Chong Kin, Consultant Chest Physician, University Malaya Medical Centre
All around the world, everyone is battling against COVID-19 with a great sense of urgency due to the pandemic’s impact on the economy and well-being of the people. However, we should not lose sight of the equally important fight against cancer, which has and will continue to impact the lives of patients, caregivers and our society for a long time to come.
In Malaysia, almost 9 out of 10 lung cancer patients are diagnosed in late stages 1. Lung cancer is one of the lethal cancers, as late-stage diagnosis is often associated with a lower survival rate 2.
For patients with advanced cancers, the chances of getting cured are unlikely, hence the treatments prescribed to them are aimed at controlling the tumour and relieving symptoms instead 3. Thus, it is not surprising that up until a few short years ago, the outlook for lung cancer patients was bleak. With the appropriate treatment, there is renewed hope for patients as their life could be prolonged 4, and they can spend more precious time with their loved ones.
This recent cancer treatment is called immunotherapy, which works by harnessing the patient’s own immune system to fight cancer 5. With immunotherapy, many advanced-stage lung cancer patients are starting to see long-lasting remissions and longer survival rate.6
For some people, the additional few months of survival might not mean much to them. But for others, it could feel like they have been given a new lease of life. Some patients would take this opportunity to live life to the fullest, spending time with family doing what they love.
While immunotherapy has been touted as one of the biggest breakthroughs in oncology by many, it is currently not available in the Malaysian public hospitals. It has not been listed on the Ministry of Health (MOH) Medicines Formulary, also known as the Blue Book. What this means is that patients with economic constraints living with cancer, or patients that do not have adequate insurance coverage might not be able to receive the immunotherapy treatment that they need.
Having access to life-saving cancer treatments should be a right and not a privilege. As a member of the medical community, I would like to urge the MOH to look into the possibility of making immunotherapy accessible to the wider Malaysian public.
In a profession with the fundamental mission to save lives, a greater access to effective and innovative treatments are not only beneficial but also highly necessary, particularly for members of society who cannot access it most.
This is especially the case for a disease like lung cancer which can happen to anyone, regardless of their age, gender and lifestyle habits. In fact, studies have shown that even those who have never smoked in their lives could get it 7. The disease burden is also high as the 5-year relative survival rate of lung cancer is only 11%, which is the lowest among all cancer types in Malaysia with a median survival time of only 6.8 months 2. Thus, the treatment of lung cancer should be seen as a significant national priority.
It is important that quality healthcare is accessible to all for Malaysia to become a more inclusive nation. I believe that by expanding the access to immunotherapy for those in need, we can help to further drive this important societal need and achieve that common aspiration together. Accessibility to effective treatment is a key step in strengthening our countrymen and thus, building the nation towards a healthier future.