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Understanding Biosimilars from a fellow breast cancer patient

By: Diana Ermel

First of all, I recommend having a look at our biosimilars fact sheet to help you understand the difference between biologics and biosimilars.

As a breast cancer survivor and board member of CBCN, I am very interested in how biosimilars will be used in breast cancer treatment in Canada. While not commonly understood today, biosimilars will soon be a household discussion among breast cancer patients.   As patients, it is important for us to know how biosimilars will be used to treat cancer, especially if they are going to be used as effective alternatives to brand name treatments. Here are some of the points that I think are important for us, as patients, to consider.

Safety and Efficacy: A key priority for all patients is knowing that their treatments are going to be safe and effective- it is no different with biosimilars. The most frequently asked question is if these drugs are as effective as the originator drugs they replicate? Health Canada has a rigorous approval process in place when it comes to biosimilars, as well as guidelines for their use. I think we can be reassured by that stewardship. Biosimilars are already being used to treat a number of chronic diseases in Canada and have been in use to treat patients with cancer in Europe for a number of years.  However, it’s not yet certain how they will be used as part of a full and comprehensive cancer treatment plan. It’s clear that patients need more information to understand how biosimilars will be regulated so that we can build our trust and comfort in being treated with these therapies.

Informed decision-making: Treatment outcomes are another concern for patients. If your current treatment plan is working well you may feel that switching could jeopardize it. But, if it’s not working as expected, biosimilars could improve access and options.  It’s important that patients are able to make informed decisions when it comes to the use of biosimilars to treat their cancer. In order to do that, we need to have open conversations with our health care providers about which treatment is right for us.

Access: Another consideration patients should be aware of is the cost of the biosimilar compared to brand name drugs. For injectable treatments, the cost isn’t the first consideration a patient has when making treatment decisions. This is because our provincial health body pays for the treatment. For oral treatments, however, there are several provinces that lag behind the rest of Canada. These provinces require patients to pay out of pocket or through private insurance for oral drugs. Having a treatment that is less costly on the system and on your own pocketbook is seen as a win by many people. Since it is already so complicated for patients to have to navigate affording and accessing cancer treatments, biosimilar therapies need to be used by the health care system in a way that will help expand patient’s treatment options and access to cancer therapies.

As biosimilar therapies for cancer come to Canada, there will be more and more questions about how they will be regulated and used by the health care system. As breast cancer patients, we need to be equipped with adequate information to make informed decisions about our treatment.  Going forward, it’s clear that ensuring that these treatments are used in a safe, effective, and transparent way that increases overall access to essential cancer medications will be the most important priority for patients and organizations like CBCN.