Shutdown Prompts Fear, Confusion Among Cancer Patients

PHOTO: Maddie Majer

Eight-year-old Madison "Maddie" Major was cancer-free for eight months, but she and her family learned that her leukemia had returned on Monday – hours before the federal government shutdown.

Maddie's mother, Robyn Major, feared the worst: that the shutdown would somehow hamper her daughter's ability to get into a clinical trial, which was a necessity for Maddie because her cancer stopped responding to chemotherapy and she needed new treatment options.

"We're kind of stuck," Major said, adding that she brought Maddie to Capitol Hill two weeks ago to lobby Congress to fully fund federal health agencies – before they knew about the relapse. "We're stuck because people are acting like children."

She said she imagined the paperwork for the trial was "sitting on someone's desk at the FDA, awaiting approval," but had been abandoned because of the shutdown.

In reality, the paperwork for the drug trial Maddie hoped to participate in was set to be submitted to the Food and Drug Administration next week, so it wasn't sitting on an abandoned FDA desk.

What's more, the FDA is continuing to review and approve clinical trials during the shutdown, said FDA spokesman Steven Immergut.

But Maddie's doctors at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia said the added level of fear from the shutdown is palpable on the pediatric cancer ward.

"I think that from the patient and parent perspective, this just adds uncertainty to the situation where there's already a lot of uncertainty," said Dr. John Maris, who directs the Center for Childhood Cancer at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "I'm in clinic right now, and it's more just waiting to see what happens and some added fear."

Get the latest news on the shutdown by visiting our topic page.

Maris said he was able to get an experimental drug approved by the FDA for emergency use in one of his patients this week. But he said he submitted the paperwork for that approval last week, before the shutdown, which makes him wonder whether submitting the emergency paperwork this week would work if he had to do it for another patient, he said.

"The Food and Drug Administration, from what I can tell, is operating and is working, but again, it's how long that can sustain themselves that I don't know," Maris said.

Most patients probably won't be affected by the shutdown in the short term, said Dr. Kara Kelly, a professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Medical Center who works primarily with children who have Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. But they may pay in the long run when trials and research becomes delayed, she said.

Kelly, who has two ongoing trials through the National Institutes of Health, said NIH trials won't be able to move onto their next phases, because furloughed NIH employees need to review previous phases before they can approve new ones. As a result, she feared drug companies would stop supplying drugs to these trials if they think the trials are frozen, she said.

The NIH said Tuesday that 200 patients will be blocked from starting clinical trials each week of the shutdown – including 10 children with cancer and 20 children with other ailments. It's since received permission to bring employees back from furloughs to re-open clinical trial enrollment.

Read about how the shutdown is affecting health programs.

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