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Woman battles FDA for her life

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Julie Heppe is a warrior.The rural Sikeston woman has fought cancer since 1993. The diagnosis started with breast cancer back then but now has reached Stage 4 cancer including moving to the linings of her lungs.

She's already experienced a health crisis greater than anyone deserves and now her essential medical decisions are squarely outside of her control.

For the past two years, the drug Avastin has kept Julie Heppe alive. She had followed a regiment of chemotherapy as the normal course of action on cancer. But Avastin was different. It brought her relief and allowed her to maintain a normal life without the massive side effects of chemo.

Now Julie is in the fight of her life. But it's the federal government that is now her enemy. This issue puts Julie Heppe in the crosshairs on the discussion of federal control of health care decisions and the potential for medical rationing.

In December, the Federal Drug Administration announced that they want to remove Avastin because of potential side effects experienced by some patients in their study group. And though Heppe acknowledges that some patients have substantial problems with Avastin, she says the drug is helping her and providing relief that allows her to continue with a quality of life unlike the chemo experience.

Few of us have the medical or scientific skills to weigh in on this topic. But Julie Heppe can tell you firsthand just how important Avastin is to her survival. The question is will the FDA and the federal officials listen to the frontline warriors whose lives hang in the balance?

Like all of us, Julie Heppe deserves the best weapons available in her life and death battle.

Understanding this complex issue is far above my pay grade. But if any of us found ourselves in Julie Heppe's boots, we'd fight for our lives with every tool available. And for Julie Heppe, Avastin is that tool.

The company that makes Avastin has filed an appeal of the FDA's decision to withdraw the drug. Eventually, the final decision will rest with Congress.

If Congress were to agree with the FDA, a generic form of Avastin will remain available. But it won't be covered by any government health care. Generic Avastin would cost as much as $100,000 annually. No one other than the wealthy could then afford this life-saving medication.

Julie Heppe says she isn't one to follow politics closely. But the issue of federal health care coverage hit home when she realized in mid-December that her cancer drug might be the first shot fired in this national debate.

Stage 4 cancer is not curable. Julie Heppe knows that. But she also knows that Avastin has provided her some miraculous quality of life when none seemed possible.

And now she knows that the ability to use and afford that drug is in the hands of politicians.

For Julie Heppe this is not a political debate. It's her life.

Michael Jensen
Michael Jensen