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Monday, 2 June 2003
Page: 15569

Ms PLIBERSEK (1:22 PM) —The member for Boothby pointed out that universal screening for prostate cancer is perhaps not useful, but this motion does not argue for universal screening; it argues for screening for groups of men that are at risk. The debate we have gotten into with the Cancer Council of Australia and others—that universal screening is not desirable—really detracts from the fact that, for many people, screening is not just desirable, it can save their lives. Without telling people about the importance of screening, without telling them about the likelihood of prostate cancer, and without letting men know about screening processes that are available to them we will not make a dent on the death rate from prostate cancer.

The member for Boothby was suggesting that early detection is not necessarily desirable because in many cases prostate cancer is very slow growing. I understand that argument but I have to say that, if you are one of those men for whom early detection means the difference between life and death, you do not hold very strongly to the argument that early detection can have its drawbacks. Certainly it has its drawbacks in a statistical sense, but for some men it is the difference between life and death. It is the difference between dying in your 50s and dying in your 70s, and I certainly would not be dismissing that as unimportant.

We say that only men get prostate cancer—that is very true. But women suffer from prostate cancer as well. One of the reasons we need to talk about screening procedures and about really thorough public education campaigns is that, while of course we care about the health of the men who are affected by prostate cancer, we need to remember that whole families are affected by the possible loss or illness of a man who suffers from this disease. After skin cancer it is the second most common cancer in Australian men, and it is the second most common lethal cancer in Australian men after lung cancer. Over 2,500 men die each year of prostate cancer, but a much greater number live with it—that is true. We have 10,000 new diagnoses every year. For many of those men, their cancers grow slowly and they may not require treatment. But that decision is for those men and their families to take. It is not up to us as parliamentarians and it is certainly not up to public educators to say that people should not worry about this. They should be educated, and there is no way of doing that without a public education campaign.

If we start telling men that they should not worry, it gives them the perfect excuse not to have a test for prostate cancer, which is a test many men are frightened of. They will not decide against being tested because they have made a thoughtful, well-informed decision that prostate cancer testing is not for them; they will decide against the test because they are frightened of it and because it may be unpleasant. If they have prominent Australian doctors telling them that it is not necessarily a wise or essential thing to do, for many men—who perhaps have a family history of prostate cancer or a higher than usual risk profile for other reasons—it is the perfect excuse not to be tested.

The majority of prostate cancer deaths—83 per cent, in fact—occur in men over the age of 70. To some people 70 might sound old, but it is not old anymore. I know very healthy, fit, active people who are well over 70, including my own parents. They have many years of life left in them. To disregard particular conditions because they appear predominantly in older people seems to say that if people are not in the work force anymore they are not of much use to society. Many people in their 60s and 70s make an enormous contribution. I will conclude by saying that I believe we need to see a much greater investment in research about the causes of prostate cancer—lifestyle factors such as diet, the impact of heredity, genetic factors—and about the efficacy of treatment options so we can properly inform people who face a diagnosis of prostate cancer. We cannot do that by hiding our heads in the sand.