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Tuesday, 28 November 2017
Page: 9038

Senator GRIFF (South Australia) (16:52): I too commend this report of the Select Committee on Funding for Research into Cancers with Low Survival Rates. It is a comprehensive body of work with, as Senator Bilyk mentioned, 25 recommendations that will have a profound impact on the wellbeing of those with what are now known as low-survival cancers. The aim is of course to move these cancers from being low-survival to survivable. Broadly the recommendations cover research funding and coordination; clinical trial awareness, access and approvals; improving early detection and identification; repurposing drugs; fast-tracking innovative treatment and particularly the utilisation of genomic research; patient care; costs; and navigation through the disease processes.

All of the recommendations came out of expert medical and scientific evidence that was provided and the personal experiences of cancer sufferers and their families and friends. The hearings, as Senator Bilyk mentioned, were heart-wrenching. All senators—in fact, the majority of the people in the room—were wiping away the tears at the first one. It was a very emotional time for everyone. Many witnesses found it tough to tell their story—or that of their loved one, though they were compelled to do so in order to honour the memory of their loved one and to agitate for a better outcome for others.

Being a member of this inquiry opened my eyes. Like other Australians, I knew cancer was bad and some cancers were worse than others, but I had no idea there was so much inequality in terms of treatment options and research dollars. I had no idea that some cancers, such as pancreatic cancer, are as deadly now as they were a generation ago. It is incredible to think that at a time when we have made so many remarkable strides in so many fields of medical research the prognosis for a host of cancers has not improved. For every 100 people diagnosed with mesothelioma, only six people will survive more than five years. For every 100 people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year, fewer than eight people will still be here in five years time. Only one in five people will survive a brain cancer diagnosis, and what makes this even more tragic is that this is one of the most common cancers in children and young adults.

Low-survival cancers are defined as those where fewer than 50 per cent of patients survive five years past diagnosis. There are only about 10 of these cancers, but they account for 30 per cent of all deaths. And you know what's even more shocking? These low-survival cancers only receive about six per cent of research funding. Some low-survival cancers are also rare cancers. There are about 186 rare cancers, and the two combined account for almost half of all cancer deaths in Australia. These killer diseases are stuck in a research and treatment no-man's-land. Research grants are usually allocated based on population need and previous research successes, but when it comes to rare and low survival cancers, there are too few research successes to create the sort of momentum that might lead to more funding and more breakthroughs.

We know from what has been achieved with breast cancer and prostate cancer that investment in research, surveillance and public education can turn these harsh statistics around. Of 100 men diagnosed with prostate cancer this year, 95 will still be alive in five years time. Ninety per cent of people with breast cancer or melanoma, which was once the scariest of killers, will beat their diagnosis and be with us for many, many years to come. It is crazy, isn't it, that you might think yourself lucky to get prostate cancer and not pancreatic cancer?

We would all want every newly diagnosed patient to have such a positive prognosis and hope for the future but, as this inquiry highlighted, even with cancer, there are the haves and the have-nots. There are a number of reasons for this, but it essentially boils down to numbers. There are relatively few people who can be studied and enrolled in clinical trials for rare and low-survival cancers and, hence, not a big enough market of potential patients to make it worthwhile for pharmaceutical companies to invest in drug development. There are also very few survivors to push for change and to fight for more funding, including philanthropic funding, which is a crucial source of additional income for researchers and patient support services—and so survival rates have stalled.

But we do not have to keep accepting this situation. We have the power to turn this around. We would like to see the National Health and Medical Research Council make low-survival cancers a national health priority area so that this gets a larger slice of the NHMRC's existing funding pie. We also need to rethink the one-size-fits-all approach to cancer treatment and to eliminate the regulatory hurdles that prevent patients accessing the most appropriate therapy for their particular tumours. The standard approach to cancer treatment in Australia is to treat cancers by type—'We treat colon cancer this way and we treat ovarian cancer that way'—but more and more research shows that the same type of cancer can have a variety of genetic causes and so the best approach is a much more individualised one. This is a no-brainer, but we also need to better educate GPs and the community about the symptoms of low-survival cancers, because early detection can make a life and death difference. According to Rare Cancers Australia's submission, up to 93 per cent of women are likely to survive more than five years if ovarian cancer is detected at an early stage. However, only 15 per cent of all cancers are diagnosed at an early stage.

There is plenty government can do—and do today, in fact—to start giving hope and a better prognosis to the thousands of Australians who will, in the coming year, be diagnosed with rare and low-survival cancer. I would urge government to respond quickly and accept all 25 of the committee's recommendations, because delay would literally mean the difference between life and death for many thousands of Australians.

Thank you to the chair, Senator Bilyk, for your amazingly passionate advocacy and for bringing about this inquiry. Thank you to the secretariat for your organisational management and reporting expertise. Lastly, and most importantly, I want to thank the many individuals—and their families—affected by cancer who wrote submissions and presented in person at the inquiry. I know how painful it was for some of you to speak on the suffering of your loved ones. I want to assure you that the Senate recognises your sacrifice in speaking, and we will work together to make low-survival cancers a thing of the past. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.