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Wednesday, 29 March 2006
Page: 65

Mr WOOD (1:33 PM) —I rise today to speak in favour of the Cancer Australia Bill 2006. I back up the comments made by the member for Lilley and I congratulate him on his ‘Be a Man’ campaign for prostate cancer. I speak personally on this matter, as my father has advanced prostate cancer. I highly recommend that all men between the ages of 40 and 50 undertake these tests to prevent happening to them what I have seen happen to him.

Unfortunately, cancer remains an all too familiar experience for many Australian families, and those in my electorate of La Trobe are no different. The Cancer Council of Australia’s statistics are frightening. Before the age of 75, one in three men and one in four women will have contracted the disease. These men and women are our parents, our siblings, our children and our friends. They are you and I. Of all the medical challenges that confront Australia in the coming century, perhaps none is of more gravity than that of finding a cure for cancer.

Despite these dire statistics, all Australians should take heart that the Howard government has resolved to keep Australia at the forefront of the early detection and treatment of cancer. The Howard government recognises that to be able to do so successfully it must first provide the proper institutional framework. In this way the Cancer Australia Bill 2006 is a vital step in attacking this insidious illness. Cancer Australia has been allocated funding of $13.7 million over five years to enable it to provide national leadership in cancer control. In doing so, the Howard government is fulfilling its promise to the electorate of a new national coordinating body for cancer care.

The establishment of Cancer Australia is just one of a series of measures in the Howard government’s Strengthening Cancer Care initiative. Through the Strengthening Cancer Care initiative, the Howard government will allocate $189.4 million over five years to 2008-09 towards a range of anticancer measures. Cancer Australia is to be established with the aim of creating a central body to connect and coordinate the many organisations which fight cancer across Australia. The Cancer Australia umbrella will supersede the current rather unwieldy arrangements between the Cancer Council of Australia and various federal government agencies. The passage of the Cancer Australia Bill 2006 will ensure that these groups now speak to government with a single voice. Cancer Australia will make recommendations directly to the minister through the voice of some of Australia’s pre-eminent medical experts.

The message ‘Prevention is better than cure’ is often repeated. Unfortunately, it is far less often heeded. Nowhere is it more apparent than in the fight against cancer. It is of great concern that many of the major causes of cancer in Australia are, at least to some degree, preventable. I believe that education is critical in promoting behaviour which prevents cancer. The main culprit continues to be tobacco. Tobacco related illness accounts for the most prevalent and most preventable causes of cancer in Australia. The statistics provided by the Cancer Council of Australia are quite startling. Tobacco smoke directly causes more than 11,000 new cases of cancer each year—12.5 per cent of all new cases of cancer. More than 7,800 deaths every year are caused by cigarette smoking. The majority of these deaths are from lung cancer. Lesser known cancers such as throat cancer and mouth cancer also contribute to the toll.

Furthermore, we are learning more and more about the adverse effects of smoking that are visited upon unborn children. Children of mothers who smoke while pregnant are at a far greater risk of a number of ailments, among them low birth weight, prematurity, SIDS and asthma. The Howard government is committed to reducing the number of women smoking during pregnancy. To this end, the Howard government is providing new funding of $4.3 million over three years to 2007-08 to encourage doctors, midwives and Indigenous health workers to advise pregnant women about the damage caused by smoking.

I would also like to voice my support of the new requirements that all cigarette packaging contain graphic photographs of victims of cancer and other tobacco caused illnesses. The glamour that cigarette manufacturers have hidden behind for so long must be torn away. We can only hope that these images, gruesome as they are, will achieve their aim and bring smokers to their senses. Thankfully, with measures like these, smoking is progressively being pushed further into the margins of our society.

A second major cause of preventable cancer in Australia is skin cancer. The statistics provided by the Cancer Council of Australia indicate that Australia has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world. Each year around 374,000 Australians are treated for non-melanoma, non-life-threatening skin cancer and more than 8,800 are diagnosed with melanoma. Tragically, of their number, over 1,300 Australians will die from melanoma or non-melanoma skin cancers every year.

As with tobacco, further education is crucial. Educational measures, such as the Slip Slop Slap campaign launched in 1980, or the SunSmart campaign of more recent times, have familiarised Australians with the risks of Australia’s intense UV light. But mere recognition of these risks does not diminish them. The challenge is to transform this recognition into action.

This will be no easy task. It beggars belief that tanning salons—solariums as they used to be known—are a growth industry. Statistics on the VicHealth website suggest that there has been a 600 per cent increase in the number of solariums in Melbourne in the past 10 years. This growth has been fuelled by the widely held misconception that there is a ‘safe’ kind of suntan. What is more, this potentially dangerous industry is unregulated. Glamour can be a fatal pursuit.

In any event, given Australia’s love of the sun, eradicating skin cancer will continue to be a great challenge. Accordingly, I wish to applaud the funding of $5.5 million over two years to 2006-07, to educate Australians about the importance of protecting themselves from skin cancer.

Many experts also link the risk of cancer to overweight and obesity. The Cancer Council attributes over 25 per cent of cancer cases and over 7,600 deaths annually to lifestyles which are characterised by physical inactivity and poor diet. As has been widely publicised in the media, Australians are getting fatter; obesity has now become an epidemic. Over the past several decades there has been an enormous rise in the number of overweight Australians. Australia now holds the unenviable position of being the second fattest country in the world behind the United States—something we should not be proud of. While in the 1980s less than 40 per cent of Australian adults were overweight and obese, in 2000 it was estimated that the figure was somewhere around 60 per cent.

What is more alarming still is that our children are not immune to this illness—as many as 30 per cent of Australian children are estimated to be overweight or obese. Children are adopting the same behaviours as their parents. One suspects this is because our children are fast becoming more comfortable in the virtual world of the internet and video games than they are in the real world. The health implications of this obesity epidemic will, no doubt, be yet another great challenge facing Australia’s medical system in years to come. The Cancer Council of Australia suggests:

There is convincing evidence that excess weight is associated with an increased risk of endometrial, oesophageal (gullet), renal (kidney) and colorectal cancer (bowel) and of breast cancer in post-menopausal women.

It would be a bitter irony if the prosperity Australians have worked so hard to achieve turns out to be a health hazard. Educating Australians about preventative behaviour also includes education about the availability of methods of early detection. In this regard I would like to endorse the Commonwealth government’s allocation of $43.4 million over three years for the phasing in of a national bowel cancer screening program. Early diagnosis of bowel cancer or pre-cancerous abnormalities has been shown to markedly increase the chances of survival.

One type of cancer that is not known to be preventable is breast cancer. However, we must ensure that women are both educated about, and have access to, the best methods of early detection. In this regard I must convey my full support for the $4 million in funding that the National Breast Cancer Centre will receive to help raise awareness about early detection of breast cancer.

I think it is important that I take this opportunity to address the issue of the availability of the breast cancer drug Herceptin. While Herceptin is currently available on the PBS for women suffering from late stage breast cancer, some of my constituents have asked me to support making it available for early stage use. So far over 1,500 Australian women have benefited from this drug, but the drug’s cost is prohibitive for most Australians: a year’s Herceptin treatment costs around $66,000.

I fully support putting Herceptin on the PBS for early stage use, provided its manufacturer, Roche Products Pty Ltd, can satisfy the Therapeutic Goods Administration that it is an effective treatment. It would be irresponsible to let the drug pass without full and proper scientific scrutiny; and it would be a tragedy in itself to deliver a message of false hope to breast cancer sufferers.

Recognising the urgency of this situation, Minister Abbott has instructed the TGA to prioritise the evaluation of Roche’s application to extend the registration of the use of Herceptin to early stage breast cancer. As I understand it, the TGA is currently undertaking a review to assess if Herceptin is satisfactory for this additional use. It is expected that this review will be completed within three months. Minister Abbott has also fast-tracked a simultaneous application to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee for the government subsidy. Ultimately, however, the PBAC can only consider a submission for listing on the PBS once the drug is approved for use by the TGA. I congratulate Minister Abbott on his efforts in prioritising the evaluation of Herceptin. I hope that those awaiting its results can take some comfort—small as it may be—from the fact that the Howard government is doing all it can to expedite the process.

The Howard government continues to give great support to the health services provided to my constituents in the electorate of La Trobe. The Howard government has allocated $800,000 over two years towards the Fernlea House palliative care hospice in Emerald. While the Fernlea House facility is not exclusively for cancer sufferers, the majority of its patients are cancer patients. When Fernlea House opened its doors in November 2005, I was proud that the Commonwealth government was able to fund a project that many people in my electorate had worked tirelessly towards over a number of years. Again I acknowledge the fantastic work of Jan Lancaster. It was a great achievement. It was fantastic to make a contribution and to deliver on a promise I had made to my constituents before the last election.

As I have told the House before, my involvement with the Fernlea House committee began many years ago when I discovered that there was not one respite care facility in the far east of Melbourne. At the time, the area locally known as ‘the Hills’—the Dandenong Ranges—was in great need of such a facility. Previously, people in the area seeking respite or palliative care would have to travel for over an hour to receive appropriate treatment. Fernlea House can accommodate up to six patients per day. The committee of management of Fernlea House—and I congratulate it—is still hoping to reach its ultimate goal of a six-bed overnight accommodation facility. It is not currently able to do so as the Victorian state government has so far failed to contribute any funding to the project. That lack of action by the state Labor government is a disgrace. To date, Fernlea House has been entirely funded by the Howard government. I once again encourage the Victorian state government to shoulder some of the burden to assist in keeping Fernlea House operating. Fernlea House is providing a much-needed health service to the area and the burden should not fall solely on the Commonwealth government’s shoulders.

Part of Cancer Australia’s charter is to strengthen palliative care services. I would like to endorse the Local Palliative Care Grants Program. Under this program the Howard government is committed to providing $23.1 million to assist charitable hospices like Fernlea House, and other local groups such as churches and aged care providers, to support cancer patients and their families. The new funding will be used for the fit-out of and equipment for premises for palliative patients, pastoral care, and counselling.

In closing, I would like to reiterate my support for the Cancer Australia Bill. Cancer is an issue of the utmost importance to all Australians, young and old. The establishment of the Cancer Australia organisation is an integral part of the Howard government’s anticancer program. A cure for this terrible disease cannot come fast enough.