Cancer patients quit high-cost immunotherapy

By Le Nga   August 12, 2023 | 08:00 pm PT
Cancer patients quit high-cost immunotherapy
Cancer patients are guided to do physical exercise at Tu Du Hospital in HCMC, December 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Hai Ha
As health insurance does not cover expensive medication for cancer treatment such as immunotherapy, many patients have opted for traditional methods.

At 60, Khanh in Hanoi has lung cancer and used to follow the immunotherapy method for treatment.

According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, immunotherapy is a treatment that works with your body's immune system to help it fight cancer cells or to control side effects from other cancer treatments.

The treatment plan designed for Khanh requests him to receive two bottles of medication worth over VND60 million (US$2,519) every three weeks for around two years or more, depending on how his body reacts.

He followed the plan for three months, but then his budget was exhausted, leaving him no choice but to give up, though he was aware the method was good for him.

"Doctors advised me that immunotherapy is my best choice, but the drug is too expensive for me," he said, added that he had now switched to other methods and accepted the risks.

Lan in Bac Ninh Province, which borders Hanoi, turned down the option immediately when doctors suggested treating her liver cancer by immunotherapy as there is no way for her to cover the costs.

Now Lan is seeking treatment at a provincial hospital and only hopes to live for several more months.

Doctors in Vietnam started treating cancer by immunotherapy around five years ago and until now, immunotherapy medications have yet to be included in the list of drugs covered by health insurance.

Pham Thi Tuyet Nhung, a doctor at 108 Military Central Hospital in Hanoi, said when receiving a cancer patient, doctors will present treatment plans that comprise immunotherapy, targeted therapy, chemotherapy, and palliative care.

In recent years, immunotherapy and targeted therapy have emerged as advanced options for cancer treatment, especially for patients at early stages.

As chemotherapy has been proven to have limited effects and strong side effects, most chemicals used for this method have been covered by insurance. Patients are left on their own when it comes to immunotherapy and targeted therapy, said Nhung.

She added that only 10% of cancer patients in Vietnam could afford the new methods.

"Many of my patients have had to sell away their land and homes to get access to the advanced treatment but they had to stop halfway," Nhung said.

The doctor said that in those cases she felt deeply regretful for the patients but there was nothing she could do aside from changing treatment plans for them.

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