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Dad refused Alimta after radical cancer surgery

Mike Blackburn, Evening Gazette, October 1, 2005

A devastated dad-of-four today told of battling through the most radical cancer surgery available - only to be refused follow-up drugs which could extend his life.

Jeff Hurrell believes he is a victim of "postcode prescribing" and has vowed to fight for new chemotherapy drug Alimta, which is available in other parts of the UK but not Teesside.

He challenged local health chiefs to "explain this situation to my eight-year-old son when I am gone".

North Tees Primary Care Trust defended its decision, saying all Teesside PCTs had agreed not to fund the £24,000 treatment as it was not approved by a national health body.

In May, Jeff, 57, of Norton, was diagnosed with mesothelioma - a lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos for which there is no known cure.

But within two months he, his wife Susan and their family were given hope.

Jeff became one of the first Teesside patients to travel to Leicester's Glenfield Hospital for radical surgery to remove the deadly tumour. The surgery, which involved removing his right lung, heart lining and part of his diaphragm, is currently carried out by just one UK surgeon.

Jeff was told it was probably the most severe operation the human body can stand.

As he recovered, Jeff said doctors in Leicester and Teesside "all agreed" the best follow-up treatment was Alimta.

Also known as Pemetrexed, it is not a cure but has been shown in trials to prolong survival of mesothelioma patients.

While it is licensed to treat mesothelioma in the UK, it is not yet approved by NICE so is not widely available on the NHS. But it is prescribed in Scotland, Manchester, Liverpool and London.

"When I was informed the funding was not available for Alimta on Teesside, I felt distraught, confused and let down," said Jeff.

"Why are we living in a society where your postcode determines your life span? Perhaps the PCT will explain this situation to my eight-year-old son, Andrew, when I am gone.

"The terrible irony is that this drug is not available in one of the UK's worst areas for asbestos-related cancers."

A contract manager for a shop fitting firm, Jeff believes he was first exposed to asbestos as a 17-year-old apprentice.

Now he is determined to find another way to get the treatment and has contacted the office of local MP Frank Cook.

"You need to grasp for anything that gives you hope," said Jeff. "The worst thing in the world is for someone to turn around and say there's no hope. It's the fight that keeps people like me going." A spokeswoman for North Tees PCT said it has a prescribing working group which decides which drugs to fund.

"The prescribing group would not recommend prescribing drugs outside their licensed use or something that has not been approved by the National Institute of Clinical Excellence," she said.

She added the PCT was also part of the Cancer Care Alliance, which offers guidance for prescribing drugs for cancer for the whole of Teesside.

"Alimta has not yet been approved by NICE, and the drug is currently not approved for funding by any of the PCTs within the Cancer Care Alliance," she said.

"While North Tees PCT has great sympathy for this patient and his family, it is crucially important that decisions about the funding of cancer drugs are taken collectively.

"If PCTs in the Alliance take individual positions they create inequities, which would be unacceptable."

Jeff said he would like to give a special thanks to his doctors and nurses at North Tees, James Cook and Glenfield hospitals and his GP for helping him fight his cancer.

Last month the Gazette told how Marske grandad Bernard Hoyland was told by Langbaurgh Primary Care Trust it would not fund Alimta for his mesothelioma.

Fact file

Mesothelioma is a relatively rare form of cancer which affects the membranous lining of the chest and, less commonly, the lining of the abdomen and of the heart.

It can take ten to 50 years, or even longer, to develop and is usually associated with asbestos exposure.

Mesothelioma has, so far, resisted most forms of treatment. However research is continuing, and according to experts at Cancer Research UK, Alimta has shown good results in trials.

The National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) is looking at the evidence for Alimta and hopes to make a decision whether to approve it in 2006.

Radical surgery at Leicester's Glenfield Hospital has also seen patients survive longer.

Health and Safety Executive figures show deaths from mesothelioma are much higher in the North-east than other parts of England.

Thousands of men and women who worked in the region's shipbuilding, steel and chemical industries are suffering after breathing asbestos dust decades ago.

Teesside is among the worst hit areas. The deadly legacy of its industries accounts for 10pc of all cases of mesothelioma deaths.

Unions like the GMB fear UK fatalities from asbestos-related disease will rise to as many as 10,000 people a year by 2015, or sooner.

 
 

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