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Vincristine shortage delaying treatment for some cancer patients nationwide

Posted at 3:06 PM, Oct 29, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-29 17:06:51-04

DENVER, Colo. -- Megan Fischer’s life story is one of strength and triumph. Her black belt in taekwondo is proof of her ability to persevere when mind and body are pushed to their limits. It’s a challenge she chooses to take part in. However, there was a time about 15 years ago when she had to overcome a challenge that wasn't planned.

“In June of 2001, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It was explained to me as being roughly the size of an average-sized human fist. So relatively large in the head of a 6-year-old,” Megan Fischer said.

Fischer is a childhood cancer survivor.

“I remember just kind of a lot of times feeling like ‘why I am I here, why am I in this situation where I’m being hurt.'”

After a surgery to remove the tumor, Fischer underwent chemotherapy for 11 months. It made her very sick. But it worked, and a couple years later, Fischer was cancer free.

“Now I just kind of try and advocate for other kids with cancer, and kind of help them through.”

Fischer is hoping to raise awareness of the shortage of the chemo drug Vincristine. It was part of her treatment many years ago.

“I don’t know if it was the reason why I was able to have so much success in my tumor disappearing, but I definitely know that the side effects of Vincristine are pretty terrible. So I don’t think that my doctors would have put me on it if they didn’t think it was going to play a role in my chemotherapy treatments,” Fischer said.

Dr. Lia Gore is the Chief of Pediatric Oncology, Hematology and Bone Marrow Transplant at Children’s Hospital Colorado. She says Vincristine is the backbone of many chemotherapy regimens used.

“It is actually a critical element of therapy for leukemia, for some childhood brain tumors, for several other kinds of cancers,” Dr. Gore said.

She says there are two primary companies that produce Vincristine, and one recently decided to stop supplying the drug. Dr. Gore says hospitals were given very little warning.

“Teva [Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd.] which was a very large supplier – large volume supplier – just decided to stop making this drug. They cited a ‘business decision.’”

Dr. Gore says a drug as common and basic as Vincristine isn’t as profitable. The other company, Pfizer, has stated it'’s planning to increase its production . In the meantime, Dr. Gore says hospitals around the country have had to delay treatment for patients or ration the drug.

“In a country that we think has the most sophisticated medical system in the world, we have to ration drugs that are the principals of common backbone of what our therapy is,” Dr. Gore said.

With no substitute for the drug, both Dr. Gore and Fischer hope the supply will be able meet the demand by the end of this year -- especially because they say it’s become essential in the treatment of many cancer patients who can live on feeling happy and healthy like Megan.

“There’s hope that you can live beyond cancer. Cancer is a part of who I am, but it definitely doesn’t define me. I’ve done and had so many great opportunities,” Fischer said.

She says she hopes other kids will be afforded the same.