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First Waikato patient receives new melanoma treatment

First patient for new cancer treatment

“This treatment has come just in time as I don’t believe I had many stops left” says Waikato DHB’s first patient , Vivian Armstrong,  to receive the Pharmac funded drug Nivolumab (Opdivo),  a treatment for advanced (metastatic or unresectable) melanoma.

Oncology staff

l-r Oncology staff getting ready to administer first dose of Melanoma Government funded drug Opdivo – pharmacist Benny Pan, registered nurses Lyndall Nohes, Nancy Yang, Aleisha Clarry and Joy Utting

At 67, Vivian received her treatment on 20 July at Waikato Hospital just weeks after the Government had announced funding support in its 1 July budget.

She was diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma in May 2016, saying: “I’m so thankful to the people that lobbied and the government for making this treatment available – I feel extremely lucky”.

While receiving the nivolumab infusion, Vivian’s charisma and gratitude was moving. Her son, who left his job and 20 years of residence in Australia, was right by her side.

“It’s about time he came home” she says.

“I have treatment schedule every fortnight for about an hour, so it’s good that it won’t get in the way of my social life.”

Staff working at Oncology Outpatients were thrilled to be treating their first Waikato nivolumab patient.

“It is gratifying to have funded treatment available finally that gives most patients a treatment option.” said medical oncologist Dr Michael Jameson.

“Similar drugs have only been available until now in clinical trials or if privately-funded.”

“Patients with advanced melanoma that we can assess on scans to see if the cancer is responding to treatment will receive the treatment. We have to stop treatment if the melanoma progresses.” said Dr Jameson

“Some patients may be too unwell to try this new drug and others may have health problems that mean this treatment may not be safe to use.”

Pharmacist, Benny Pan, says: “For New Zealand public, this is a new class of drug for advanced melanoma.

“Prior to nivolumab, there was only one main drug treatment available for melanoma – which only gave up to a low response rate and a less than 10 per cent survival rate .”   said Benny Pan

“Nivolumab is giving advanced melanoma patients new hope for more effective treatment with a higher percentage response rate.”

Pharmac approves the first three months of treatment and then the patient is scanned to see if the drug is working. As long as the cancer is responding and patient can tolerate the therapy, they will continue with the drug.

About  nivolumab (Opdivo) and melanoma

Australia and New Zealand have the highest melanoma incident rates in the world.

According to the Melanoma New Zealand website and sourced from the Ministry of Health and New Zealand Guidelines Group, around 300 New Zealanders die of melanoma every year.

The Government’s decision to deliver better health services in this year’s budget included an extra $124 million over the next four years for Pharmac to provide more access to new medicines including OPDIVO for patients with advanced melanoma, subject to special authority criteria.

Pharmac has also confirmed that it will also fund a similar drug Keytruda (pembrolizumab) from September.

The successful petition for OPDIVO to the government was led by Tauranga woman and melanoma patient Leisa Renwick, who gained 11,000 public signatures.

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