Australians living with types of aggressive stomach or oesophageal cancers can now access immunotherapy on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), representing the first treatment advance for many of these patients in a decade.

OPDIVO® (nivolumab) in combination with chemotherapy, is now reimbursed as an initial treatment for patients with a type of stomach or oesophageal cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. This is the first and only immunotherapy available for these patients, which works by activating the immune system to recognise and attack cancer cells.

Medical Oncologist at GenesisCare St. Leonard’s, Professor Stephen Clarke, OAM, Sydney, said the reimbursement of the first new therapy option in 10 years represents a significant milestone for Australians living with this devastating disease.

“Unfortunately, patients with stomach and oesophageal cancers are often diagnosed late once the cancer is advanced or metastasised (spread to other sites in the body), resulting in poor survival outcomes

“As clinicians, we want to offer therapy options that not only extend the lives of our patients, but also offer improved symptom control with associated quality of life benefits,” said Prof Clarke.

“For survival rates to improve, patients must receive timely access to novel treatments, which is why the availability of the first reimbursed immunotherapy for this patient group is such welcome news.”

The stomach and oesophagus are part of the digestive system, where food is broken-down to give the body energy.

Last year, approximately 2,400 Australians were diagnosed with stomach cancer, and a further 1,649 Australians were diagnosed with oesophageal cancer.

The fastest growing cancer in the Western world is gastro-oesophageal junction cancer, which is cancer located where the oesophagus connects with the stomach. Stomach cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer of the digestive system in Australia, after colorectal and pancreatic cancer.

Digestive system cancers do not always cause symptoms in the early stages, and when symptoms do present, they are often non-specific, such as difficulty swallowing (including pain or choking), reflux or heartburn, unexplained weight loss, or loss of appetite, fatigue and abdominal pain. This means patients aren’t diagnosed until the cancer is advanced or has spread.

Grandmother-to-one and retired retail sales assistant, Janelle, 65, Brisbane, was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in October 2020.

“I learnt the cancer had metastasised in May 2021 and was now terminal, and I was only expected to live a few more months. I was totally devastated when I heard that, I thought, why me? 

“My oncologist suggested I go on a trial using immuno-oncology in combination with chemotherapy.
I remember thinking I’ll give anything a go if it means prolonging my life,” Janelle said.

Janelle is now an advocate for ensuring all patients diagnosed with oesophageal cancer have access to a wide range of treatment options.

“I welcome the new treatment listed on the PBS. Patients need to have access to as many life-prolonging treatment options as possible.” 

Chief Executive Officer of Pancare Foundation Australia – Australia’s leading charity dedicated to raising awareness, supporting families, and funding research for digestive system cancers – Doug Hawkins, Melbourne, is proud to be involved in bringing awareness to the first treatment in a decade for Australians living with stomach and oesophageal cancer.  

“Today we celebrate the achievement of securing reimbursement for the first treatment in 10 years for patients living with these devastating cancers,” said Mr Hawkins.

“With this listing, Australians living with types of advanced or metastatic stomach and oesophageal cancer, now have access to the first ever immunotherapy option, marking a significant milestone for the patient community and their clinicians.”