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Cancer Patients Face Shortage Of Chemotherapy Drugs


Aired 8/31/11

Cancer patients and health providers in San Diego are facing a tough situation: a shortage of certain chemotherapy drugs. It's a nationwide problem that seems to be getting worse.

— A diagnosis of cancer is scary enough. Now imagine finding out that a key drug you need to treat the cancer isn’t available. That’s happening in San Diego and around the nation because of critical shortages of chemotherapy drugs.

Nurse practitioner Scott Shuford tries to lighten the mood with his patients ...
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Above: Nurse practitioner Scott Shuford tries to lighten the mood with his patients at the San Diego Cancer Center in Vista. Shuford says it's tough when he has to change their chemotherapy because of a shortage of certain drugs.

It’s a situation that isn’t likely to be resolved anytime soon.

Day after day at the San Diego Cancer Center in Vista, nurse practitioner Scott Shuford takes care of people who are fighting to stay alive. Shuford thinks the last thing they need is someone with a grave attitude.

So when he visits with his patients, he tries to keep things light.

"So tell me," Shuford said to a woman in treatment, "what’s it like walking around having a plastic tube hanging out your side?

"It’s a mild inconvenience," she replied.

"Ha! It’s mild inconvenience..." Shuford sputtered.

Shuford said he gives his patients a little bit of chemotherapy, and a lot of love. But lately, that little bit of chemotherapy has been hard to come by. That’s because there’s a growing shortage of chemotherapy drugs.

"This problem has just gotten more and more pronounced," Shuford said, "because we’re spending more and more time looking for drugs all over the country, and using different outside vendors, and hoping we’re gonna have enough to keep people on cycle."

Chemotherapy is usually given in cycles. For the treatment to be effective, certain drugs are given at certain times.

"When you can't get a particular drug," Shuford said, "you have to consider going with a completely different regimen, or jury-rigging another regimen, which is not in the patient’s best interest."

Ken Patterson lives in Escondido. He’s one of Shuford’s patients.

Patterson has bladder cancer.

He was being treated with the drug Taxol, and was tolerating it quite well. But one day, he got a call telling him the drug was no longer available. Patterson couldn’t believe it.

"What do you mean I can’t have the drug?" he recalls saying. "It’s workin’ for me. What are we supposed to do now?"

That’s the question a lot of health providers are asking, too.

Dr. Charles Daniels is chief pharmacist for the UC San Diego Medical System. ...
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Above: Dr. Charles Daniels is chief pharmacist for the UC San Diego Medical System. He says they've been having trouble getting their hands on Taxol and other widely used chemotherapy drugs.

Charles Daniels is chief pharmacist for UC San Diego’s Health System. They’re one of the biggest buyers of medications in the region.

Daniels says they’ve been struggling to find enough Taxol, as well as other drugs to treat colorectal and breast cancer.

It turns out there are almost a dozen frequently-used cancer drugs that have been hard to get for more than a year.

"There’s been more consolidation in the pharmaceutical industry, so where there might have been three to five manufacturers of a given product, now there’s maybe one, two, three," Daniels pointed out.

And there’s another, more insidious reason: most of the drugs in short supply are generics. Daniels said there’s not much profit in selling generics, so there is little incentive for drug companies to make them.

So that puts both patients and providers in a tough spot.

Nurse practitioner Scott Shuford said it’s just not right.

"Patients with cancer are facing uncertainty in their futures; is this gonna work, is this gonna be effective. They shouldn’t be worried about whether or not we’re gonna have the medication to treat them," Shuford said.

The Obama Administration is looking at the possibility creating a stockpile of chemotherapy drugs. How they can do this when there’s a shortage is an unanswered question.

Congress is considering a bill that would require drug manufacturers to give advance warnings of disruptions in production.

For now, however, cancer patients and providers are left wondering: what will they run out of next?

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Avatar for user 'sweegar'

sweegar | August 31, 2011 at 8:59 a.m. ― 5 years, 6 months ago

Jesus still heals people.

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Avatar for user 'J_C'

J_C | August 31, 2011 at 11:54 a.m. ― 5 years, 6 months ago

As long as the medical and pharmaceutical industries are FOR PROFIT enterprises with a goal of maximizing shareholder value, our healthcare system will remain broken. Any healthcare related entity - whether an academic institution training healthcare service providers, a pharmaceutical sales organization, a research institute, a hospital, a doctor's office, a clinic, a pharmacy, a nursing home, etc. - any entity related to healthcare should be a NON-PROFIT entity with a goal of maximizing patient health; that should be the ONLY metric for success. Doctors, pharmaceutical researchers, medical academia ... anyone in the United States related in any way to medicine and all the related alleged "services" are ultimately just glorified drones working to make money for healthcare industry shareholders. This is just WRONG; the pinnacle of hypocrisy!

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Avatar for user 'Rebecca Simpson'

Rebecca Simpson | September 6, 2011 at 3:08 a.m. ― 5 years, 6 months ago

There are other alternative cancer treatment drugs available to patients. Taxotere would be another alternative to Taxol to consider depending on the type of cancer treatment being sought. I am sure there are possibly other drugs on the market. Patients should take the time to research the availability and how effective a drug would be for their treatment plan. Patients need to become more directly involved with their health care so they are not wondering what to do next when confronted with these types of situations.

To suggest stock piling drugs would in my opinion defeat the purpose; since most drugs are time dated, therefore a lot of drugs being stock piled would have to be destroyed without benefiting anyone.

Taxotere (docetaxel) was developed by Rhône-Poulenc Rorer (now Sanofi-Aventis) following from the discoveries of Pierre Potier at CNRS at Gif-sur-Yvette during his work on improvements to the production of Taxol (paclitaxel) Bristol-Myers Squibb.
Docetaxel was protected by patents (U.S. patent 4814470, European patent no EP 253738) which were owned by Sanofi-Aventis, and so was available only under the Taxotere brand name internationally. The European patent expired in 2010. would be a good website to consider joining for support and managing care for cancer patients.

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Avatar for user 'Rebecca Simpson'

Rebecca Simpson | September 6, 2011 at 3:57 a.m. ― 5 years, 6 months ago

J_C Wouldn't you think according to your quote "pharmaceutical industries are FOR PROFIT enterprises with a goal of maximizing shareholder value," that the industry would want to increase the volume of sales through increase manufacturing of product (such as Taxol) in order to maximize share value; or shareholders profits? I am not saying you are wrong in your opinion I just am not understanding what you are saying about having a non-profit pharmaceutical industry.

I have noticed in our area whenever a major holiday is approaching the for profit hospitals do a lot of discharging of patients. I was amazed when a friend of mine was hospitalized almost the entire wing where he was placed was discharged of patients right before Easter. He was left there almost by himself. I had to wonder if you can clean out a hospital of patients due to a holiday was it really necessary to keep them in the hospital prior to the holiday? They said as they were discharging patients, when I inquired, was because they wanted to send them home for the holidays. That was an eye opener.

We also have a non-profit nursing care facility in our area and compared to the for profits centers in my opinion they give the best care because they are not cutting corners. When I visit patients in the for profit nursing homes all I ever hear are employees complaining we are understaffed. In the non profit where I go visit patients you never hear any complaints from the staff. So I do agree with you on that one.

I am still out on whether or not our doctors should be non-profit. I would have to worry about the quality of care one would be given and a shortage of doctors. I do feel the health care insurance industry needs to be fixed. They are out of control and actually in my opinion hold back a lot of doctors from giving their patients good quality care. It is a shame when you have a person without any medical training sitting behind a desk in an insurance office dictating whether or not a doctor can order test or cover medications a doctor feels his patient needs in order to treat them properly.

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