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Wednesday, 29 March 2006
Page: 125


Ms VAMVAKINOU (6:01 PM) —I am pleased to speak in the debate on the Cancer Australia Bill 2006. It pertains to an issue of great public importance not only to my electorate of Calwell but also to the broader Australian community. As many of my colleagues have indicated, cancer profoundly and personally affects almost every Australian family. There are very few people who have not come into contact with the effects and the consequences of this disease, which are felt in our homes, neighbourhoods, schools and suburbs. Cancer is a disease that cuts across age, gender, ethnicity and social groups. It has replaced heart disease as the biggest single cause of death among Australians, with some 36,000 deaths per year. Each week, an estimated 88,000 Australians are diagnosed with some form of cancer. That is almost 3¼ million cases a year.

Fortunately—and there is good news—cancer control in Australia is a largely positive story, with our survival rates being second only to those of the United States and the number of deaths falling every year. I understand that some 60 per cent of patients who will be diagnosed with cancer manage to go on and live long and happy lives. This significant progress is due to new and more effective treatments becoming all the more available and also to better and more targeted detection and screening procedures and a greater understanding of this disease and its symptoms.

This better understanding is the result of years of excellent and dedicated research by the medical and scientific community. We have brilliant scientists in this country who have been at the forefront of many breakthroughs in the treatment of cancer. They deserve our unqualified and unequivocal support because they have the potential and the capacity to help Australians and even, hopefully one day, to find the very cure that at this point alludes them.

However, the benefits of these improvements are not necessarily shared equally across the community, with disproportionate rates of cancer still occurring in disadvantaged groups including Indigenous Australians and those living in rural and regional areas. Reforms are also needed to ensure more efficient and effective use of resources and to ensure greater coordination between our talented and dedicated research community and those who are entrusted with the treatment of people suffering from cancer and also the many wonderful support organisations that the member for Riverina spoke so passionately about. This bill is an important step in this direction.

The bill seeks to establish a new national agency, Cancer Australia. Its stated aims include providing national leadership and coordination of cancer control in Australia to guide improvements in cancer prevention and care, helping to provide better support to those living with cancer and to cancer professionals and improving and strengthening palliative care services. Cancer Australia will also oversee a dedicated budget for research into cancer. It will make recommendations to the government about cancer policies and priorities and coordinate and liaise between the wide range of groups and providers who have an interest in cancer.

I support the government’s initiative in this bill, as I think would many members of the House. It is an initiative that has the potential to improve cancer care in Australia and to significantly ameliorate the quality of life for so many Australians. For too long, the lack of coordination of cancer funding, programs and councils has prevented Australia from reaching its full potential in delivering the best possible cancer care, treatment and research. However, it would be remiss for me not to make some criticisms of the manner in which the government has delayed the implementation of this essential agency.


Mr Hartsuyker —Criticise the government—surely not!


Ms VAMVAKINOU —When the government is doing the right thing, we praise it; when it is doing the wrong thing, we criticise it. The government announced the establishment of Cancer Australia in a policy statement prior to the 2004 election and my understanding is that it was due to be implemented last year.

We in the Labor opposition recognise the immediate need to address and improve Australia’s efforts in cancer research and treatment. Our cancer policy announced prior to the last election includes $64 million for cancer prevention programs, $36.2 million to establish new multidisciplinary care for cancer, $12 million for the management of cooperative clinical trials to help develop new and better information about cancer treatments and patient care, and a nationally dedicated program to fund breast prostheses for women who have had mastectomies.

This was an issue in which I was particularly active in my first year as a member of parliament. It came to my attention that many women around the country who had had mastectomies were unable to get appropriate prostheses and were, in many cases, forced—and you may remember this: the famous ‘birdseed in the bra’ line that I used in my speech—to use alternative methods. In some cases, women were given the prostheses of women who had died from breast cancer. These things were actually happening in various places in Australia.

There is a problem with the funding of breast prostheses because it falls into the funding for general prostheses. I was involved with the many women in the various cancer support networks who were urging the government to either rebate the cost of prostheses on Medicare—something that the government refused to do—or look at alternative ways in which state hospitals allocate their funding—and once you have had a mastectomy obviously there are lots of other issues—to ensure that women who needed prostheses actually got them when they needed them. The government refused at that time to address this issue. It remains an issue and the opposition has a policy which will see us implement a nationally dedicated program to fund breast prostheses for women who have had mastectomies.

To return to the bill that we are discussing here today: we are pleased to see that the government has finally gotten around to implementing this aspect of its election policy. We do, however, condemn it for its delay and I understand that the delay in setting up Cancer Australia has had some unfortunate consequences. I refer to the untimely demise of the National Cancer Control Initiative, the key expert reference group which had been set up to advise government on all aspects of cancer prevention, detection, treatment and palliative care.

The work of the NCCI and its staff was originally planned to be subsumed into the new Cancer Australia when it was established. But the government’s failure to set up Cancer Australia in time has meant that the NCCI was forced to disband because funding ceased prior to the establishment of the new agency. Therefore, the staff at the NCCI and the expertise that had been developed there, which should have been seamlessly incorporated in Cancer Australia, have now been lost, given that many people have had to move on elsewhere.

The government’s shortcomings do not end here. Most of the government’s other commitments to cancer made before the last election, including programs to stop pregnant women from smoking and to enhance skin cancer awareness, have yet to be fully implemented. Other commitments, including the national screening program for bowel cancer, I understand have been discarded.

This is particularly regrettable, given that bowel cancer is the second most common cancer afflicting both men and women. All doctors and research experts will tell you that one of the fundamental keys to surviving cancer is its early detection. For many cancers—and there are some 200 of them—early detection is a matter of life or death for most people. Screening procedures are central to early detection and to wider cancer control and management, of course. In this context, the government’s retreat from the national screening program for such a common and dangerous cancer does not appear to make any sense and I think it seriously compromises the wellbeing of Australian men and women. Labor’s inquiries through questions on notice and Senate estimates have failed to reveal any reason for these delays and policy retreats. I would like to take this opportunity to ask the government, on behalf of my constituents, why this is the case.

Many government speakers have spoken very stridently about the government’s commitment to cancer treatment but there are still many outstanding matters that need the government’s attention and response. One example of an outstanding matter is the Senate Community Affairs References Committee report The cancer journey: informing choice, chaired by our colleague the late Peter Cook, himself a victim of cancer. This report, which offers a comprehensive analysis and appraisal of current cancer care and provides many concrete and critical recommendations, has languished on Minister Abbott’s desk since July last year. The government’s failure to act on these recommendations is a great loss to patients, to their families, to the many researchers and health care professionals, to support groups and generally to the Australian community.

As members of parliament we often come into contact with constituents who are dealing with many issues associated with a cancer diagnosis. As I said earlier, cancer affects virtually every Australian family in the country. Today I want to mention my constituent Sonia Barker, a young mother who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. Sonia’s story is all too familiar; I am sure many members have heard similar stories from constituents or have come into contact with women like Sonia. One day she discovered a lump in her breast and within days was diagnosed with a malignant tumour, underwent a mastectomy and is now preparing for chemotherapy.

Sonia came to see me as a last port of call because she needed my assistance. She is one of the many women that we have recently been hearing about who are victims of the aggressive breast cancer type HER2. Sonia, like many of the other women who have this particular type of cancer, would benefit greatly from the very successful drug Herceptin.

Unfortunately for Sonia, Herceptin is not, as yet, listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. The only way Sonia can access this potentially lifesaving treatment is if she forks out some $60,000 to pay for the medication. It is a big ask for a woman who has just had a significant thing happen to her. And it is certainly a big ask for her family and, in particular, for her husband, the only person in the family who is working. This is not an unusual occurrence. Like many other families who want their loved ones to have the best possible chance of survival, Sonia and her husband will do whatever it takes to ensure that they raise the $60,000 needed for Herceptin. Sonia has a 15-year-old son, and she said to me that she wants to live to see him grow up.

At the end of the day, these are the real-life cancer stories. Behind the policies and the legislation—and I guess behind even the banter of opposition and government members and even the squabbling between the states and the federal governments on matters of health—lie real Australians with immediate and urgent concerns. It is our responsibility to respond swiftly and effectively to these concerns.

None of us is immune. Cancer strikes indiscriminately. I know that many of our colleagues have been diagnosed with this disease. Certainly in the time that I have been here a great number of our colleagues have been diagnosed with this disease. There may be genetic predispositions and environmental or dietary factors, but at the end of the day cancer does strike indiscriminately across all groups. As our population ages, it will strike more and more.

In conclusion, I would like to say that we need to be prepared to meet these challenges. I know that we in the opposition certainly are. I call on the government to respond to the needs of Australians. I know that in the establishment of Cancer Australia it is doing that. It is a first step in the right direction. I urge the government to look at the considerations of the Senate report and consider adopting and implementing the recommendations of the report.