Patients suffer due to national shortage of cancer medications

TAMPA - Imagine you or a loved one being sick and not being able to get the drugs you need. There are patients suffering due to a national shortage of some much-needed cancer medications.

"They gave me a break for three months," says James Burns, who is spending the day at Moffitt Cancer Center getting an infusion of Fluorouracil or 5FU chemotherapy to treat colorectal cancer.

The chemotherapy drug is one of many on the Food and Drug Administration's drug shortage web site - where manufactures can list drugs they've either discontinued or have on back order.

Pharmacist Kelly Markey says Moffitt has enough to treat their current patients, "So far we've been fortunate that we haven't had to turn anyone away or do anything like decreasing their dosages or anything that would compromise their treatment for their cancer."

But across town at a Pinellas County Hospital, Clarence Robust says his adult son Brigham may not be as lucky.

"He's in the hospital because he has lymphoma cancer growing throughout his chest," says Robust. "It's under his armpits, up through his neck, now it's in and down through his abdomen."

Clarence says his son's doctors are trying to save his life, but their hands may be tied.

"This specific drug called Bleomycin is what he wanted to use but we kept waiting for it, waiting for it, waiting for it for a long time, for weeks," says Robust. "Finally I came to him and said ‘what's the problem? Why don't you have it?' He told me there's a national shortage of it."

"I said are you trying to tell me my son is dying?" He looked at me and said, "If we don't get the medicine we need, yes."

Bleomycin, F5u, and Doxil, are among a number of cancer drugs either on back order or in short supply.

"We're continuously monitoring the FDA's notifications, as well as other oncology lists so we can stay ahead of what's being provided," says Markey.

They also continuously check patients' treatment schedules to see how much of any drug they'll need in the next month.

But Markey says some hospitals that don't specialize in cancer treatment or even smaller offices that do are having trouble getting drugs

Clarence, who says his son is too sick to transfer to Moffitt where Bleomycin is available, says he can't believe this can be happening in America.

The FDA, who works with manufactures to address shortages, says: "The most common reasons for shortages are manufacturing problems and discontinuations."

"The most severe shortages we have seen in 2011 involve several oncology drugs and also a shortage of electrolytes. FDA is working with multiple firms on these shortages."

But while his son's room remains empty, Clarence wonders if the short supply of some drugs isn't more about old fashioned greed.

"Many people who need health care don't always get the care or the medicine they need cause it comes down to the all mighty dollar."

The FDA says manufacturers aren't required to report shortages. However, we've learned potential legislation working through congress may require manufacturers to report shortages as occur and require the FDA to take specific action to ease drug shortage issues.

To search the FDA's drug shortage list visit

We're also sad to tell you, the Robust family called to let us know their son lost his battle with cancer on Tuesday.

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