Bowel cancer survival rates hit rock bottom

Reduced access to health services, poor support mechanisms and cultural and practical barriers within the health system guaranteed indigenous cancer sufferers had a poor bowel cancer survival rate, new research has shown.

The new study, published in the Medical Journal of Australia and released by Cancer Council NSW, found that Aboriginal people who received surgical treatment were 68 per cent more likely to die from bowel cancer five years after diagnosis than non-Aboriginal people.

At 18 months following diagnosis, survival rates between the two groups were similar, but after five years they observed the dramatic increase in the risk of death for Aboriginal people compared with non-Aboriginal people.

The researchers analysed data from the NSW Cancer Registry from 2001-2007 and identified 29,800 cases of bowel cancer, of which 278 were Aboriginal people, or .09 percent.

Professor Dianne O’Connell, Senior Researcher at Cancer Council NSW, said the findings may be explained by a potential lack of long-term follow up tests undertaken by Aboriginal people.

“We also found that, compared with non-Aboriginal people, Aboriginal people were younger and more likely to live outside major cities, and in areas with low socio-economic status and to have diabetes and pulmonary heart disease at the time of diagnosis,” she said.

“These findings further add to the existing data we have that outlines the large gap in cancer survival outcomes between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people. When we look at prostate and breast cancer, Aboriginal people have a far greater risk of dying from the disease than non-Aboriginal people, 50 and 30 per cent respectively.

“We know that there are significant cultural barriers for Aboriginal people accessing health services. These barriers mean that Aboriginal people may be reluctant to access a cancer service and complete their treatment due to a lack of cultural safety, inadequate support and an unwelcoming environment.

“Increasing the number of Aboriginal people working in cancer services is an important part of breaking down these cultural barriers and helping to close the gap.

“The NSW Government is currently revising its NSW Health Aboriginal Workforce Strategic Framework, and Cancer Council NSW has called for the inclusion of Aboriginal workforce targets specifically for cancer services.

Cancer Council NSW encourages Aboriginal people affected by cancer, their family, carers and health professionals to access their Aboriginal Web Portal. Designed in consultation with the Aboriginal community, the portal provides culturally appropriate information and resources to help navigate and support their cancer journey.

One survivor is Jim Lord, a prostate cancer survivor and the Aboriginal Liaison Officer at Nepean Hospital. He is passionate about raising cancer awareness in the Aboriginal community.

Jim says that there are many complex issues surrounding cancer, but that a general silence around cancer in the Aboriginal community and a lack of Aboriginal workers in cancer care were two big obstacles contributing to the cancer survival gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.

Whilst undertaking an Aboriginal health course at Dubbo TAFE, he was confronted by the stigma attached to prostate cancer when a group of young men snickered at the mention of Brachytherapy.

“I turned to my partner and said, should I say something? She said yes and so I told them, I had Brachytherapy and that’s why I’m alive. There’s no room for shame with cancer.”

He says that having cancer is hard enough, but having to travel long distances and spend hours in waiting rooms makes it less likely that Aboriginal people will follow through with their treatment, which could lower their chances of survival.

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