All around the world, people are battling against Covid-19 with a great sense of urgency, due to the pandemic’s impact on the economy and their well-being.
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 society for a long time to come.
In Malaysia, almost nine out of 10 lung cancer patients are diagnosed in later stages, according to the Malaysia National Cancer Registry Report 2012-2016. Lung cancer is one of the most lethal cancers, as late-stage diagnosis is often associated with a lower survival rate.
For patients with advanced cancer, the chances of getting cured are unlikely, hence the treatments prescribed to them are aimed at controlling the tumour and relieving symptoms instead.
Thus, it is not surprising that up until a few years ago, the outlook for lung cancer patients was bleak. However, with appropriate treatment, there is renewed hope for patients, as their lives could be prolonged.
This recent cancer treatment is called immunotherapy, which works by harnessing the patient’s own immune system to fight cancer. With immunotherapy, many advanced-stage lung cancer patients are starting to see long-lasting remissions and better survival rates.
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, it is currently not available in 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 may 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 a fundamental mission to save lives, greater access to effective and innovative treatments are not only beneficial, but also highly necessary, particularly for members of society who have limited access.
This is especially true 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 can get it.
The disease burden is also high, as the five-year relative survival rate of lung cancer is only 11 per cent, which is the lowest among all cancer types in Malaysia, with a median survival time of only 6.8 months. Thus, the treatment of lung cancer should be seen as a significant national priority.
It is important that quality health care is accessible to all for Malaysia to become a more inclusive nation. I believe that by expanding access to immunotherapy for those in need, we can help to further drive this important societal need, and achieve this common aspiration together.
Accessibility to effective treatment is a key step in building a healthier future for Malaysia.
Prof Dr Liam Chong Kin is a consultant chest physician at the University of Malaya Medical Centre.
- This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.