It started as a private campaign, but a Tauranga woman's bid to get state funding for life-saving cancer drugs evolved into a national movement that led to the steps of Parliament.

Leisa Renwick has become the face of the Keytruda campaign since launching a petition calling on the Government to boost Pharmac funding for melanoma treatment drugs.

Mrs Renwick was told last May that she only had weeks to live but is in remission after expensive, private treatments of the targeted drugs Dabrafenib and Pembrolizumab (commercially known as Keytruda).

"If I had not got access to these drugs, I would have died in three weeks," she said.

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She and her husband, Wayne, pay $8500 every three weeks for the treatments at a private hospital.

However, many sufferers could not afford the treatment, and that was the message she took to Parliament, where she handed over an 11,000-signature petition to Tauranga MP Simon Bridges and Health Minister Jonathan Coleman.

"Only those with the means to pay can access medicines that can save our lives. The wealthy are offered treatment and the poor are sent home to die and that's a fact," she said at the time.

Dr Coleman responded that he was sympathetic and the Government would be looking at how much more money Pharmac, the state's bulk-buying drug agency, could be given as part of the May Budget.

When you look at the health cake, melanoma patients are not getting their share.

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Back home in Tauranga and reflecting on the events of last week, Mrs Renwick said she was surprised by the level of support. Initially, she had hoped to get about 5000 signatures, and was blown away by the response.

"I am really, really pleased with the numbers who turned up in Wellington and all the support we have received. One of the big things about going down to Wellington was I got to meet lots of other sufferers and families facing similar issues, and got to hear their personal stories.

Leisa Renwickwith Tauranga MP Simon Bridges and Health Minister Jonathan Coleman after delivering the 11,000 strong petition, calling for Pharmac to fund melanoma drugs, at Parliament. Photo/file
Leisa Renwickwith Tauranga MP Simon Bridges and Health Minister Jonathan Coleman after delivering the 11,000 strong petition, calling for Pharmac to fund melanoma drugs, at Parliament. Photo/file

"Some of the people who came told me they believe their loved ones would be alive today if they had been able to get access to these drugs."

Mrs Renwick said she did 12 media interviews on the trot.

"We really didn't know how the day would go. All we knew was that we would be met at the steps of Parliament. I never ever imagined how this petition would snowball into something which has galvanised so many other people to add their voices to this campaign."

The Office of the Clerk of Parliament confirmed the petition had been referred to the Health Select Committee. But, the metastatic melanoma survivor, said time was not on the side of dying patients.

"By the time the Health Select Committee goes through its processes of calling for and hearing submissions, and the Government announces its May Budget, many more people will have died."

Mr Renwick said he was extremely proud of his wife but it was now time for her to step back and concentrate on her own health needs.

"What started out as a private campaign evolved into something far bigger than we could have ever imagined. Our hope is the Government and Pharmac have listened and treat this matter with the urgency it deserves," he said.

Mrs Renwick said she was still undergoing the costly treatments.

Melanoma is the fourth-most common cancer in the country, and accounts for nearly 80 per cent of all skin cancer deaths. It kills around 300 people a year, about the same as the numbers killed on our roads each year and the Government pours millions into road safety every year.

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"For many sufferers getting access to these drugs is entirely out of their reach."

A year ago she and her husband were planning a trip to Spain. "My diagnosis of stage 4 melanoma happened quite quickly, so by the May Budget many more people will be diagnosed with the disease, some will have died from it."

Mrs Renwick said MedSafe approved the drugs last year.

"Why not at least fund it temporarily for six months and wait to see what the results look like ...? When you look at the health cake, melanoma patients are not getting their share."

Mrs Renwick said it was an absolutely horrible disease and the symptoms were not always obvious. One patient found out she had tumour in her eye after a routine optometrist check-up.

"Melanoma is the fourth-most common cancer in the country, and accounts for nearly 80 per cent of all skin cancer deaths. It kills around 300 people a year, about the same as the numbers killed on our roads each year and the Government pours millions into road safety every year," Mrs Renwick said.

In terms of the cost benefits of funding the drugs, the Government also needed to take into account the savings made from patients not needing surgeries, radiation treatments, or having to spend weeks in hospital.

"Look at me, I'm already back at work paying my taxes," she said.

Melanoma survivor and Keytruda drug funding campaigner Leisa Renwick. Photo/Andrew Warner
Melanoma survivor and Keytruda drug funding campaigner Leisa Renwick. Photo/Andrew Warner