TORONTO - After months of lobbying by cancer patients who went into debt and fundraised so they could spend tens of thousands of dollars on an approved drug that could potentially save their lives, Health Minister David Caplan announced Wednesday that Ontario will now start paying for Avastin to treat colorectal cancer.

The government has earmarked $30 million to fund Avastin as a "first-line'' therapy for colorectal cancer patients in combination with chemotherapy. It will also budget a total of $20 million to pay for Sprycel, used to treat leukemia, and for Alimta, which is for lung cancer.

Avastin costs about $2,500 per treatment, which is usually administered once every two weeks, according to the Colorectal Cancer Association of Canada.

Many patients have complained about the lack of provincial funding for the life-extending drug, even though it was recommended by their doctors and received Health Canada approval more than two years ago.

Provincial health officials say Avastin, which cuts off the blood supply to cancerous tumours rather than affecting all the cells in the body, has been shown to be most effective when used as the initial treatment for advanced colorectal cancer.

The province will pick up the tab for up to eight months of treatment for patients whose doctors recommend Avastin as part of their first therapy for colorectal cancer, said Helen Stevenson, assistant deputy minister and executive officer of the Ontario drug programs.

Between 1,000 to 1,500 cancer patients are expected to be eligible under the program, she added.

That's a fraction of the estimated 8,000 Ontarians who will likely be diagnosed with colorectal cancer this year, according to the Colorectal Cancer Association of Canada. Another 3,250 patients are expected to die from the disease.

Angela Cordi, 50, said she's borrowed money and held fundraisers to pay for Avastin, which she started taking in May after other cancer drugs failed.

"It's good news for future patients, but it's not good news for people who have been on it already,'' said the single mother, who was diagnosed with colon cancer four years ago.

"So I hope (Caplan) changes his mind and decides to fund it for others who have been on it for quite awhile.''

NDP critic Peter Kormos called the news a victory for cancer patients and their families, who fought the government for funding while battling a "horrible'' disease.

"Now, of course, the pressure has to be kept on the government that the funding levels remain adequate,'' he said.

"I guess what I don't know right now is when does the funding start and what are the criteria,'' added Progressive Conservative critic Elizabeth Witmer. "Will everyone be eligible?''

Still, provincial funding of Avastin will have a "huge impact'' on Ontario cancer patients, said association president Barry Stein.

"And if $30 million isn't enough, certainly we'll be there to ask the government to extend the program,'' he said.

Ontario is the sixth province to fund Avastin, along with Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, Saskatchewan and British Columbia.

Patients who receive Avastin in combination with other chemotherapy treatments tend to live months longer than patients who don't receive the medication as part of their therapy, said Ontario health officials.

The disease is expected to strike 21,500 Canadians this year and kill 8,900 others, according to the association.