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Wednesday, 29 June 1994
Page: 2350

Senator TROETH (7.20 p.m.) —I would like to speak to the report recently tendered by the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs dealing with breast cancer screening and treatment in Australia. As I was a member of this committee and participated in the extensive public hearings I would like to highlight some of the findings and recommendations. The committee recommended that, as there is a target age group for women to participate in breast cancer screening, representations should be made to the Victorian Electoral Commissioner to gain access to the roll for the purposes of that state's screening program.

  That would expedite contact with a number of women who need to be contacted so they will ring the breast screening agencies and make an appointment to be screened. If access via the electoral roll is not granted, it is reasonably difficult for a target age group to be located and contacted. Agencies such as the Electoral Commission certainly make it much easier. Victoria in particular is lagging behind in contacting the relevant age group. Mechanisms such as that would enable it to catch up with the other states and more women could be contacted.

  We also agreed that breast cancer support and counselling services be encouraged and expanded. Many of the witnesses gave us graphic evidence of the importance of providing adequate psycho-social support. A woman confronted with breast cancer is shocked and distressed. She is faced with many mental adjustments at a time when she is also confronted with a number of decisions regarding treatment or surgery. It is during this period and, indeed, after any treatment or surgery that counselling and other support is vital.

  The important role played by support groups is underlined by the United States study which shows that women who attend support services had a significantly better quality of life and survived, on average, twice as long as other women who did not attend such groups. My daughter is a member of the Royal District Nursing Service. During the course of her daily work she visits women who have had treatment for breast cancer. She told me that the importance of follow-up support was absolutely vital.

  As a country woman, I also noted that strategies should be implemented to improve access to the program in rural and remote areas. These strategies involve, where appropriate, the provision of financial assistance to encourage women to participate in the program. It is obviously not a cost-effective exercise in extremely remote areas for treatment facilities to be taken to the region.

  Evidence was given that it may be possible to transport small numbers of women to an appropriate treatment area. I would like to see that happen. Similarly, linkages between screening centres in rural and regional areas and treatment centres in major centres should be encouraged so that information transfer regarding effective treatment can be facilitated. People living in the country, particularly professionals practising in the country, often feel that they are the poor relations in a technical knowledge sense of professionals operating in the city. A transfer of information between those two groups would facilitate the whole program.

  We particularly looked at the provision of facilities for non-English speaking background women. The committee decided that strategies sensitive to their cultural backgrounds and their values should be implemented to increase the access of women from these groups to the program. Certain ethnic groups, particularly the more recent arrivals, need to be specifically targeted to encourage their participation. I am thinking particularly of Vietnamese women and women of Turkish and Arab extraction.

  Well-established ethnic groups such as Italians and Greeks were much less reluctant to attend for screening. In some ethnic communities it is important to target the male members of the household so that they may, in turn, speak to the female members of their households about the importance of attending for screening.

  Another aspect of the program that was noted was the importance of integrating both private and public facilities so that any duplication in the provision of screening services could be avoided. Obviously, this is a very cost-intensive program to set up and maintain. If existing excellent private facilities can be utilised, that would be so much the better. But, at the same time, those services should meet the guidelines for accreditation established by the national program so that there is always excellent service.

  Several states, including New South Wales and Victoria, use a successful mix of facilities in the public and private sectors. The other area that I would like to touch on in this adjournment debate is the fundamental importance of research into the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. I would like the Commonwealth government to provide a specific allocation for research into breast cancer in future Commonwealth budgets. I was very pleased to see that this was provided for by the government in the recent budget.

  It is very important that ongoing research be provided. Many of the medical authorities who spoke to us indicated that it was very necessary for more research to be done because at the moment there is simply not enough research to extrapolate some of the programs. Ongoing research is needed on a certain basis so that research facilities and centres can plan their programs accordingly.

  Again, there is a facility for a mix of public—that is, government funded research—and privately funded research. The Hancock Foundation, particularly in Perth, has started private fundraising for breast cancer screening and research. It is hoped that several initiatives being started in the eastern states will follow along those lines so there will be both public and private sector interaction in this area.

  Private donations to cancer research have been falling dramatically. I welcome the $2 million in annual funding for the government fundraising foundation. I hope that continues. It would probably have been better spent on funding tax deductibility for private donations but at this stage I am happy to see that a certain avenue of funding is established specifically. I would certainly encourage the government to continue along that line.

  I found participating in this committee on this aspect of women's health a particularly gratifying enterprise because many of the women to whom I have spoken since about the progress of the program were not aware of it before. It is only through public education that women will know how to look after their own health better and make sure that they participate in the program. For that reason alone I was very happy to be a member of the committee and to participate in bringing down its findings.