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Thursday, 25 June 2009
Page: 7303

Dr JENSEN (12:30 PM) —There are five million Australians missing out on a test that could save lives. New data on bowel cancer screening highlights the urgent need to fully implement screening for all Australians over 50, according to Cancer Council Australia. Cancer Council Australia CEO, Professor Ian Olver, says that the data shows how effective a national screening program can be, yet the program is currently only available to 50-, 55- and 65-year-olds, and he warns that five million Australians are missing out on a test that could help save their lives. He goes on to say that not only are five million Australians currently missing out; current participants are only offered a one-off screening. This is contrary to national health guidelines, which recommend screening at least every two years from the age of 50. Professor Olver said that, according to conservative estimates, the government could save the lives of more than 30 Australians each week by expanding the program to include all Australians aged 50 and over. Further delays in program expansion would lead to more unnecessary deaths.

So how serious is this disease? The answer is ‘very serious’. According to a recent Cancer Institute report, Australia has a higher rate of bowel cancer than America or Britain. Bowel cancer is one of the most common cancers in men and women, second only to prostate cancer in men and breast cancer in women respectively. Each year in Australia there are around 12,900 new cases diagnosed. It is a major cause of death, with around 80 Australians dying from bowel cancer each week. Both men and women are at risk, as I pointed out earlier. One in 18 men and one in 27 women will develop bowel cancer before the age of 75.

For women, the number of new cases of colorectal cancer is projected to increase by 30 per cent, from 5,883 in 2001 to 7,673 in 2011. For men, the increase is predicted to be from 6,961 in 2001 to 9,294 in 2011. Furthermore, more than 75 per cent of people with bowel cancer do not have a family history of the disease. It is therefore even more important that the screening program is widened so that all Australians in the higher risk groups are regularly screened. According to a report into cancer incidence projections for 2011, the incidence of bowel cancer will increase per 100,000 people from 51 for 50- to 54-year-olds, 85.3 for 55- to 59-year-olds, 136.8 for 60- to 64-year-olds, 203.6 for 65- to 69-year-olds, until it peaks at a massive 435.8 for those over 85.

But those are just dry facts and figures. Consider the personal cost—the initial shock, and possibly despair, of people facing this potentially fatal disease, then the realities of chemotherapy, during which many people are terribly sick and suffer dreadful side effects. After all that, many patients are still severely restricted in what they can do, and the impact on their lives can be protracted, if not enduring.

I have received many emails from constituents on this important health matter and some have been heartbreakingly personal. One young woman said that her grandfather would perhaps be alive to see his grandchildren had he not died from bowel cancer.  On the strength of that, her father took advantage of the screening program and was thankfully declared clear—this time. Another constituent told me that she had lost her mother to this disease at the distressingly young age of 42 years old and she is undergoing regular treatment for a related condition.

These are real people who, without an expanded screening program, face an uncertain future. We have seen the success of the biennial mammogram screening program and the impact it has had on the early detection and therefore increased survival rates of people who have breast cancer. Not only does it make sense but it is our responsibility to ensure that improved medical techniques are used not just to save money but to save heartache, worry, diminished quality of life and, ultimately, lives.