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Wednesday, 29 March 2006
Page: 117

Mr HENRY (5:20 PM) —It is without exaggeration that I say that Australians are currently fighting a war right here at home—a war that rarely makes the headlines yet claims more than 36,000 Australian lives each year and rates as newsworthy only when someone famous finds themselves in the fight. I am talking about cancer. I use the metaphor of war deliberately, although with the utmost respect to those who have literally experienced battles between humans. One in three Australian males and one in four Australian females will battle at the cancer front line before the age of 75. Among the rest of us, virtually everyone is affected. It kills more Australians than any other single cause of death. It accounts for 28 per cent of deaths overall and, tellingly, 35 per cent of all deaths under the age of 75. Many of these are slow, progressive, painful deaths that undermine the strength of untold numbers of families.

There are many Australians who have stepped up to fight this war. As a nation we are blessed with quiet armies of people who have the talent, care and commitment we need in the battle fronts of cancer prevention, cancer treatment and cancer care. One such quiet army is Silver Chain, founded in Western Australia in 1905. Today, over 100 years later, Silver Chain is a name of trust and compassion in our Western Australian communities. Silver Chain is a non-sectarian charitable organisation, which established an extension of its service deliveries in 1982 as a hospice care service, which is one of Australia’s largest community based palliative care services. Through this service, Silver Chain provides a holistic approach to home care for people who are terminally ill, for their families and for their carers. We should applaud its activities and offer our congratulations for the efforts of over 500 volunteers and 2,300 staff who provide this much-needed and caring service.

Another very much in the front line of cancer prevention is the 2006 Australian of the Year, Professor Ian Frazer. He has been on the front line in this battle for some 20 years, researching the link between papilloma viruses and cancer, seeking ways to treat these viruses in order to reduce the incidence of cancer. The professor has now developed vaccines to prevent and treat cervical cancer, which affects some 500,000 women, with some 300,000 losing their lives each year. In 2002 alone, 227 Australian women lost their lives to cervical cancer. A vaccine based on his research has been shown in worldwide trials to prevent papilloma virus infection and reduce pap smear abnormalities by 90 per cent. It has the potential to virtually eradicate cervical cancer within a generation. This vaccine will revolutionise women’s health across the globe.

Professor Frazer’s commitment to the fight includes his work as Chairman of the Medical and Scientific Advisory Committee of the Queensland Cancer Fund. He advises the World Health Organisation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on papilloma virus vaccines. Dr Frazer teaches immunology to undergraduates and graduate students of the University of Queensland. Professor Frazer also founded and leads the University of Queensland Centre for Immunology and Cancer Research. He was recently made a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and was awarded a Eureka Prize in recognition of his development of the vaccine.

It is a war and, while we recognise and acknowledge the great work and efforts of organisations like Silver Chain and people such as Professor Frazer, to fight this war we need a war office. That is where I believe this bill to establish a new national body known as Cancer Australia is a progressive initiative, and that is why I rise to speak to the Cancer Australia Bill 2006 today.

The National Cancer Control Initiative, or NCCI, put in place by the Hon. Michael Wooldridge, has battled well on behalf of us all since 1997. It has devised national strategies, informed government policy and done important work on diagnosis, prevention, patient care, research and knowledge sharing. But, with 462,000 new cases being diagnosed each year and more than 100 types of cancer together stealing around 260,000 potential life years from Australians each year, we need an agency with more power for the battle ahead. In fact, the NCCI itself realised this need for a national coordination, communication and strategic cancer agency. The NCCI worked actively to ensure the successful establishment of Cancer Australia. The government was pleased to respond by including the establishment of Cancer Australia in the Strengthening Cancer Care policy package we presented to the Australian people at the last election.

Cancer Australia will give us many tactical advantages as we fight against cancer. Most importantly of all, it will provide the national leadership and coordination we need to make the best from our resources and efforts. This leadership will focus on improving all three battle fronts: prevention, treatment and care. It will also coordinate, link and strengthen the wide range of health-care providers and community agencies connected to the battle. Some of these agencies are large and broad in scope; others are local and highly focused. We need all their efforts, and we need to do everything we can to help them be as effective as possible. To this end I can only endorse the mention by the Minister for Health and Ageing and member for Warringah, the Hon. Tony Abbott, that a national audit of cancer efforts is a key priority.

Cancer Australia will also guide government cancer policy and priorities and help with implementation, turning policies into action. This will include overseeing a special budget dedicated to cancer research. I was very pleased earlier today to hear the member for Prospect supporting the main thrust of the bill and much of the activity of Cancer Australia. Among the key work fronts for Cancer Australia will be efforts to facilitate and implement expanded support for Australians living with cancer; enhanced professional support for cancer care workers; improvements to screening and prevention services, especially for bowel, skin and cervical cancer; and enhanced research into the disease itself, as well as research into how we care for those who battle it.

The importance of these government initiatives is hard to overstate. Cancer is already our single biggest killer and steals far more potential life years than any other health issue. But our population is ageing and, as cancer occurs four times more often in people over 65, we are facing a dramatic rise in the number of cancer cases we fight each year. Yet, according to the Cancer Council of Australia, evidence suggests that even with current knowledge we can prevent up to half of all cancer deaths. I think that bears repeating: half of Australia’s cancer cases are already preventable.

Research now clearly links obesity, diet and physical inactivity with many types of cancer. Although the exact nature of these links is unclear, we do not need further research to tell us that Australia’s increasing body weight and decreasing physical activity levels are not good news for cancer statistics. And we do not need research to motivate us to respond now in the interests of the future health of all of us, including our fellow Australians who are more at risk of so-called ‘lifestyle’ cancers. Indeed, I cannot help asking myself whether perhaps it would help national discussions about this if we stopped calling them ‘lifestyle factors’ and started calling them ‘cultural factors’.

I was struck recently by Cancer Council figures which estimate that not only can we can prevent 7,700 deaths each year from cancers caused by cigarette smoking and 1,300 from skin cancers but also we can already prevent around 6,000 cancer deaths caused by inadequate intake of fruits and vegetables, obesity or lack of physical activity. A recent estimate that 60 per cent of Australians over the age of 25 are overweight or obese therefore makes for sobering thought for those concerned with our long-term health care needs.

It is important to note that, among the reasons driving the need for Cancer Australia to be established, it is often forgotten that the burden of cancer is not shared equally across the Australian community. Australians who already experience relative social and economic disadvantage have far higher rates of cancer diagnosis and tragically have higher rates of mortality. Indigenous Australians, for example, have by far the worst rates of cancer incidence and survival, dying from cancer at twice the rate of non-Indigenous Australians. Overall, cancer patients in remote parts of Australia are 35 per cent more likely to die from their disease than their fellow Australians living in major cities. Wherever we live, the evidence indicates that people with lower levels of education and less socioeconomic opportunity develop cancer and die from it at higher rates, which only reinforces the educational and economic disadvantages their families already experience.

But we must not think that all the news on cancer is bad—far from it. Overall, we have improved cancer survivability by 30 per cent even including the most lethal forms. We have made major progress in reducing certain cancers like those caused by smoking. We are performing much better at early detection of many cancers such as prostate and cervical cancers. Our ability to treat many cancers, including childhood, breast and colon cancers, is world-class and light-years away from just generations ago. Even more important for the long term is the progress we have made towards understanding how to reduce and manage risk factors.

In fact, this is perhaps our most exciting opportunity in the cancer war. We must continue to progress our treatment and care efforts, but now we have the capacity to match that with advances in prevention. This bill to establish Cancer Australia will go a long way to achieving that. Make no mistake: Australia is not alone in this war. In fact, every nation on earth is fighting with us. Cancer is a major problem for all humanity in the 21st century. Bird flu may grab the headlines but cancer already kills millions around the world each and every year. It hits without fear or favour—especially without favour. Read even a few reports on cancer in the developing world and the heartbreaking figures on incidence, access to treatment and survivability are salient reminders that we already have one of the world’s best cancer care systems in the world, from prevention to treatment to palliative care. There is so much to be grateful for and proud of.

But we cannot yet say that we are winning the war, only that we have had some successes and are currently at a kind of stalemate or detente of disease. Age and lifestyle issues loom large. Age, in particular, is cancer’s greatest advantage. It is great news that we are living longer, but this advantage brings with it the reality that our cancer rates will increase. In all likelihood this increase will be dramatic in the coming decades. The imperatives for this bill could therefore not be clearer. Already cancer directly costs us about $2.8 billion or six per cent of our national health budget. Indirectly it costs us far more in lost productivity, social capital, emotional health and missed opportunity. Yet even this cost is dwarfed by the immeasurable cost of losing 36,000 of our children, parents, siblings, spouses, friends, colleagues and neighbours each year.

The thinking and legislation behind Cancer Australia has already received broad support across the medical research and health care sectors as well as from the cancer sector itself. This bill should receive strong and unqualified support from all parties and political persuasions. It is one of those bills that show how things should work: sensible, well-informed policy guiding well-considered legislation that is responded to by all on its merits and capacity to benefit Australia and Australians. Between this moment as we sit in this chamber and Christmas Day, when we celebrate that occasion with our families, more than 27,000 Australians will lose their fight with cancer and another 340,000 Australians will be diagnosed. On behalf of them all, those who care for them and those who care about them, I commend this bill to the House. Foreseeing the bill’s passage into legislation, I wish the incoming staff and advisory board members of the new Cancer Australia all wind to their sails.