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Oral Chemotherapy: the Future of Cancer Care

Thanks to recent medical advances, chemotherapy patients now have a convenient way to quickly, safely and effectively fight cancer.

Instead of receiving chemotherapy intravenously, patients can simply take a chemotherapy pill. These oral medications reduce chemotherapy side effects and eliminate the need for infusion appointments. Patients can continue their regular activities while the medication destroys cancer cells.

“Infusion chemotherapy appointments take at least two hours, and many patients miss an entire day of work,” says Gerold Bepler, M.D., Ph.D, president and CEO of the Karmanos Cancer Institute. “With oral chemotherapy, a patient literally swallows a pill. That’s it.”

Chemotherapy works by inhibiting or altering cellular pathways that allow cancer cells to grow and survive. In 2001, the Food and Drug Administration approved Gleevec, one of the first oral chemotherapy medications. Doctors typically prescribe it to treat chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML).

“Since Gleevec was introduced, the CML five-year survival rate has increased from 25 percent to 90 percent,” Dr. Bepler says. “Compared to infusion chemotherapy, oral medications can act more quickly and be more effective.”

More recently, researchers have developed other oral chemotherapy medications to treat melanoma as well as lung, colorectal and breast cancer.

“We’ve made substantial progress in developing new treatments that are more effective and have fewer side effects,” Dr. Bepler says. “Oral chemotherapy drugs fight cancer while helping patients maintain quality of life.”

The Case for Equal Coverage

Oral chemotherapy medications are quickly becoming part of standard cancer care. Yet, many health plans don’t cover these drugs at the same level as infusion chemotherapy treatments.

This disparity means patients have to pay large out-of-pocket costs for oral chemotherapy medications, which can cost between $2,000 and $20,000 per month. Infusion appointments are typically covered by an office visit co-pay.

“We support legislation that gives patients access to all anti-cancer medications, regardless of how they’re delivered,” says Carol Christner, director of Government Relations for the Karmanos Cancer Institute.

Michigan residents can contact their state legislators and ask them to pass the Oral Chemotherapy Access bills (Senate Bills 540 and 541 and House Bills 5132 and 5133). If passed, Michigan will join 15 other states and the District of Columbia in requiring health plans to provide access to all chemotherapy, including oral medications.

“We’re actively meeting with state legislators to explain the need for coverage of modern cancer medications,” Christner says. “Passing the Oral Chemotherapy Access bills is the right thing to do.”

For more information about the Oral Chemotherapy Access bills, please visit

© 2014 Karmanos Cancer Institute Pencil
The Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Center is accredited by The Joint Commission.
If members of the public have any quality-of-care or safety concerns, they may notify The Joint Commission at 630-792-5800.