A new drug that can help keep certain types of ovarian cancer in remission for four times longer than chemotherapy is available on the NHS in England and Wales for the first time.
Cancer experts are hailing niraparib as a ‘milestone’ in the treatment of the disease, which affects around 7,500 women in the UK every year.
The drug, which is taken in the form of a daily pill, will be offered to women who have already had two or more courses of chemotherapy and aims to improve quality of life.
Dr Jonathan Krell, a senior clinical lecturer and oncologist at Imperial College, told Sky News that “niraparib helps by improving any symptoms patients may have from the cancer themselves but it will also mean that they won’t need to be on chemotherapy for as many weeks or months during their treatment”.
“That means fewer trips to hospital and fewer of the side effects that can be associated with chemotherapy, such as tiredness, sickness and risks of infection.”
Vanessa Hillary, 59, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2013. Doctors said she had five years left to live and put her on a course of chemotherapy in an attempt to give her more time with her family.
“Chemotherapy can be absolutely debilitating,” Mrs Hillary told Sky News. “You can have your highs and lows but when you have your low sometimes you can’t even get out of bed, you sit on the sofa, you have no life.”
Mrs Hillary’s cancer continued to spread and, by November last year, she felt her body could no longer stand any more chemotherapy. Her doctors suggested she try niraparib as part of a clinic trial.
She told Sky News: “I have four cancer tumours and all of them have halved, which means basically they are dying.
“So every morning now I wake up and I take two tablets, just two tablets and I can get on with my day, I can get on with my work, I can have a social life, I’m planning things for July which is unheard of!”
Doctors call ovarian cancer the silent killer because its symptoms, like a bloated tummy and lack of appetite, are only really felt in the advanced stages of the disease. A third of women diagnosed do not live beyond five years.
Unlike existing targeted treatments currently available of the NHS, niraparib will be offered to cancer patients without a BRCA mutation, also known as the ‘Angelina Jolie’ gene.
Rebecca Rennison, director of public affairs of Target Ovarian Cancer, told Sky News: “We’ve seen a few new treatments come through for ovarian cancer over the last few years but nothing on the scale of niraparib.”
“It really will make a huge difference to hundreds and thousands of women.”
Further trials will determine just how long niraparib can help keep a patient’s cancer in remission.
But Vanessa Hillary says it’s a gift just feeling well enough to enjoy her daily life.
“I saw my grandson Andrew last week,” she told Sky News, “and he said ‘Nanny, you’re not poorly anymore, are you?’ and I said “No, Andrew I’m not, I’m feeling rather well at the moment!” And he said: “I like that Nanny Ness, I like that.”