As I type this, a tube is curling its way down a drip stand, under my t-shirt and into a port-a-cath inside my chest, monotonously clicking away as my next cycle of chemo is pumped into my body. In mid-June I was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma – a rare and aggressive soft tissue cancer growing off one of my ribs. I first noticed a problem after my housemates and I decided to have a party to celebrate making it through our first term of university. The morning afterwards, I felt an excruciating pain in my side. I took a couple of Paracetamol and shrugged it off as a drunken bump from the night before, but when a 10cm-by-8cm lump formed itself off my rib within the space of a couple of weeks in May, I became pretty sure that something wasn’t right. From thereon out, life has been a series of chemotherapy rounds, scans and tests.
This weekend’s front page of The Sunday Times ran with the headline: “Cancer treatment stopped to pay for HIV drug”. The article claims that three cancer patients suffering from a rare blood cancer have been denied stem cell transplant operations because “the NHS may be forced to pay for a drug that protects healthy people against HIV”. Though true that these patients’ treatments are unavailable on the NHS and that this particular HIV drug may be rolled out, the piece ignores other upcoming medical treatments and completely unconnected cuts and choices being made within the NHS. Instead of exploring a nuanced argument, it merely points the finger at gay people for not wanting HIV.
The piece refers to HIV preventative drug PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis). PrEP works by interfering with an enzyme that HIV-infected cells use to make new viruses. Using the daily drug has been shown to reduce the risk of HIV by 86 per cent, with a recent study concluding that daily access to PrEP to 25 per cent MSM (men who have sex with men) would reduce new HIV cases by 44 per cent. Queer men and ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected by HIV in the UK; the introduction of PrEP would reduce transmission rates and, thus, reduce the health inequalities involved. That’s good for all of society.
For many, a recent judicial review from the high court ruling that the NHS has the power to commission PrEP was a huge victory for LGBT people and those in relationships with HIV+ partners. But the NHS appealed the ruling and is currently in a lengthy legal battle over who pays the bill for the drug. Users and supporters of the drug are constantly vilified by the press, despite it being referred to as a “game-changer”. PrEP is facing the same backlash that the contraceptive pill received, with socially ignorant and gruelingly conservative folk claiming it will fuel “hedonistic lifestyles” if it’s rolled out.
As it stands, monthly access to PrEP will cost the NHS £400 per person, while 5,000 people are being diagnosed with HIV year on year in the UK with their treatment costing near on £400,000 over the course of their lifetimes. It’s clear that, even in a financial sense, PrEP is totally worth it.
As it also clearly stands, the disease that has consumed my life is being used as a weapon against the PrEP battle. Patient needs should never be pitted against each other and, as a cancer patient and gay man, I see the importance of both my chemotherapy and the need for PrEP as non-paralleled treatments that cannot be compared against each other. PrEP would take up 0.2 per cent of the NHS’ budget, less than what is spent on aspirin. But any association to HIV, even preventative, seems to unleash this inexhaustible sea of 1980s-esque thinking, vilification and dirtiness.
All too often, the sick are split into the "good sick” and the “bad sick”. Society tells us that it’s OK to have cancer, even if it’s a result of poor lifestyle choices like smoking or eating badly, but not HIV.
My days in hospital and my suffering should not be used as a political weapon against other patients – and people trying not to become patients. I refuse to be used as a stick with which to beat those who support the provision of this revolutionary drug.
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