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Thursday, 30 March 2006
Page: 157

Senator WEBBER (7:05 PM) —Senator Hutchins was actually referring to Senator Moore. Cancer is a journey that I have been fortunate enough to avoid, but I have known a number of people who have travelled that long journey. At the outset of my contribution I would like to place on the record my acknowledgment of the incredible journey that, in particular, Senator Hutchins has undertaken. It is a life-changing journey but, as we all know, there are a number of people—many members of this place, never mind the wider community—who have had to have their own personal battles with cancer. Most recently, apart from Senator Hutchins of course, was Senator Ferris, who I will refer to a bit later on.

From a Western Australian perspective, the late Senator Peter Cook—like Senator Hutchins in his contribution—sought to place on record some of the concerns that people may have about treatment options and about some of the people who call themselves professionals in this area. As Senator Hutchins, being someone who has suffered from that disease, tried to use his role in this place to the overall good of people, so did Senator Cook. When faced with what was ultimately a disease that took his life, it was certainly a little challenging for him initially, but he decided to use not only his suffering of that disease but also his role in this place to get us to focus on this enormous challenge to our community and to try and pull together a treatment regime and address the issues of those who suffer from cancer.

It is an incredible opportunity that we have in this place that we get to examine policy and make recommendations to government, and it is always moving when a member of this place takes and tries to use those very personal challenges and experiences to frame good public policy for the betterment of our community. It is a useful contribution that all of us make here, and it makes this chamber a much better place. In listening to Senator Hutchins’s contribution earlier, it is an incredibly challenging personal journey.

However, one things that concerns me, and it is one of the reasons I think that this legislation and the establishment of Cancer Australia will be to the betterment of the community, is that you are looking at people who are staring their future and their life in the face and a lot of these so-called quasiprofessionals prey on some of the most vulnerable members of our community. So it is very  timely that we put some of those concerns on the record and we have an agreed position of progressing not just research but treatment for Australians.

The Senate would be aware that the Senate Community Affairs References Committee recently had an unusual process where we had a hearing regarding a petition that was tabled in this place about the issues of gynaecological cancer, the testing regime and treatment thereof, and the research that needs to be undertaken. One could not help but be moved by the evidence there. Unlike other cancers, where symptoms become very obvious, this is one of the most insidious and nasty cancers that a woman can suffer from. In fact, it has been a very personal journey in this place because Senator Ferris took us through her own experiences.

Gynaecological cancer is starting to affect more and more women, yet it is one of the hardest to detect because, if you are like many of the women, the only immediate symptom after this cancer has been developing for a while is unremitting tiredness. I can tell you that I, especially when I have been over here, have been prone to feeling unremitting tiredness, so that is not necessarily the best symptom—and if it is the only symptom it does not make detection that easy. So it is certainly my hope that we will continue to progress that issue. I know Senator Ferris has plans, as I said, to use her personal journey to frame good public policy and assist other women in Australia who may face that challenge.

However, I know from the evidence we got from the department at that time that the establishment of a body like Cancer Australia is going to make the coordination of research, testing and treatment of these challenging diseases a lot more effective in Australia, and for that it is to be commended. As has been said, there have been vast improvements in the treatment of not so much gynaecological cancer but other forms of cancer. Some cancers, when diagnosed, no longer have to be the death sentence that they once were. So if we can have a body that will pull together the research and improvements in treatment then that is all to the good. Of course, one of the most significant advances in Australia has been in the treatment of breast cancer, where we now have an incredible success rate. It no longer automatically has to be an invasive process. It is not fun, as I am sure others will be able to tell you, but it does not have to be as dramatic and invasive a process as used to be the case, and it is not automatically a death sentence, as was the case before.

I want to finish my brief contribution on this by again commending the role of the people who served on the cancer inquiry. People made a lot of comparisons to the cancer inquiry when dealing with the mental health inquiry report, which we tabled earlier today. Maybe it is because there is a group of people in this place who are interested in the same kinds of issues so we tend to be involved in the same inquiries, or maybe it is just that that is so much at the forefront of our minds. As Senator Humphries mentioned, we compared attitudes to mental health to the fact that there is a lot of community awareness and sympathy when someone says that they have been diagnosed with cancer. However, there is now a growing body that says: ‘When you’re diagnosed with that, we’re going to treat you as a whole person. We’re not just going to put you into hospital and operate on you and remove the nasty bit or whatever the appropriate treatment model is. We’re going to try and address all of your needs.’ I know Senator Ferris says this was the case with the treatment she received at Canberra Hospital.

Cancer is a life-changing experience for anyone who has suffered from it. As with mental illness, all of us are touched by it—we have a family member, a friend or a colleague who has gone through it or we personally go on that journey. When talking to people who have been on those journeys, the most common thing that they say is that their life ended up in two different compartments—there is before they got sick and after they got sick. That is how life changing it is. That is the way they view what happened. Before they got sick they were a different person, psychologically, to when they came out the other end of the treatment regime. Maybe they are stronger. Maybe they are a better person. Maybe they have a greater outlook on life and the need to get on and confront the challenges of life. However, it is a very challenging journey to assist anyone to go on—never mind having to go on it personally. I therefore commend the government for creating Cancer Australia.