Nationwide chemo shortage delays treatment for some patients

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SUN CITY WEST, Ariz. -- Cancer patients are being forced to put off treatments because of a nationwide shortage of chemotherapy drugs.

Al Kerns and his wife, Patricia, have been in Arizona since January, as first-time snowbirds from Washington.

They were RVing in Salome when he fell ill.

"I was feeling puny and pretty sick," Kerns said.

A few days later Kerns was brought to Banner Del E. Webb Medical Center in Sun City West and diagnosed with cancer - acute myeloid leukemia, which affects the bone marrow.

Doctors told Kerns the prognosis was good, but he would need chemotherapy.

The 66-year-old went through one round of treatments with the drug daunorubicin.

Kerns needed a second round.

"That was going to start on Friday night, this last Friday night and the chemo wasn't here," Patricia said. "Saturday. It wasn't here."

Time crawled, and on Monday afternoon the drug still wasn't available. Doctors had ordered an alternative drug, mitoxantrone, that was also dwindling in supply.

"This kind of shortage that we've been experiencing for the last eight months to a year is really an unprecedented scale...where we're talking about entire drug classes being out," said the hospital's pharmacy director, John Vlahopoulous.

It's not just chemo drugs. Cancer-related nausea and pain medications are also limited, as are morphine, a common ADHD medication and antibiotics.

What's the reason for the shortage?

Experts say there are a number of factors: A lack of raw materials, manufacturing issues and delays, stricter FDA standards.

A bill has been introduced on Capitol Hill that would require drug companies to tell the FDA about upcoming shortages.

That legislation has stalled in Congress for the last year.

The Kerns say something needs to be done.

"The doctors' hands are tied. The hospitals are tied. They can't get the supplies. And in America; we're not a third world country, we should be able to have the medications on hand."

Kerns finally received a chemo treatment Monday evening and his doctors will check his bone marrow in the next couple of days.