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Australia's Biggest Morning Tea turns 20 - a time to reflect on progress in cancer control

May 17, 2013

Australia's Biggest Morning Tea turns 20 - a time to reflect on progress in cancer control

Rumour has it there is a single cure for cancer locked away from those who need it. This is one of the most popular cancer myths propagated online. But how can this be? "Cancer" describes not one, but hundreds of diseases. It's unlikely there will ever be a single, miracle cure for them all. But prevention, detection and treatment for most cancer types is evolving, improving and saving thousands of Australians each year.

Each type of cancer is biologically different from the others, and each causes a whole set of different problems that must be treated in different ways.

It's important to know we are making progress. More people are surviving cancer than ever before, treatment options are improving and we are now far better set up to support cancer patients and their loved ones.

So let's put this into some historical context.

Twenty years ago, we launched Cancer Council's Australia's Biggest Morning Tea. It has since become one of our key fundraising events. As Australia's Biggest Morning Tea enters adulthood, it's timely to reflect on some of the positive developments in cancer control in Australia over its lifetime - developments that have been achieved by the government and non-government sectors, evidence-based researchers and advocates, and all those in the community who have supported organisations like ours.

Today, we now have almost 30 percent fewer cancer deaths in Australia than in the late '80s - this translates to 61,000 cancer deaths being avoided over 20 years. Put simply, that's 61,000 fewer families having to hear the devastating news that a loved one has been lost to cancer.

It's important to know that this hasn't been down to a single silver bullet solution. Rather, it has been due to a huge amount of research here in Australia and globally with many of our partners. It's due to breakthroughs in new treatments and beefed-up prevention program commitments. After all, the adage that prevention is better than cure still rings true. 

Cancer Council NSW recently launched a new report that highlights these advances, measured by reductions in cancer deaths compared with what we would have experienced if trends in the late 1980s had continued. Of course it's not all good news; we also have a snapshot of cancers for which there had been little no improvement in death rates.

The late 1980s was a pivotal point in the cancer fight. From this point forward Australia began to introduce national screening programs, national prevention campaigns and, in 1996, we finally recognised cancer as a national health priority - investing more in research, treatment, information and support.

Since then, two of the biggest improvers as measured by reduced death rates have been breast cancer and lung cancer. Early detection of breast cancer, through mammographic screening, has led to significant reductions in mortality rates. Breast cancer treatment had also improved over the past 20 years.

The reason lung cancer death rates have declined is simple: the proportion of Australians smoking, men in particular, has decreased dramatically in recent decades.

We still have a lot of work to do to reduce aggregate numbers of lung and breast cancer deaths. They are common cancers; and, while lung cancer prevention has improved, treatment outcomes are still poor. More research is urgently needed to improve lung cancer survival. It remains a very difficult cancer to treat.

Nonetheless, the work done in discouraging tobacco use over the past 20 years should be applauded.

From the late '80s, no longer was it acceptable for workplaces and aircraft to be clogged with toxic tobacco fumes, or for tobacco advertising to appear in newspapers and magazines. (Broadcast advertising had been phased out in the previous decade - a great triumph for public health.) Today, we continue our work in this area and won't rest until no more lives are unnecessarily taken by tobacco.

Educating our nation about cancer prevention has been a huge game changer. People now know the risks of smoking. There is also growing awareness of the risks of being physically inactive, lying in the sun, drinking alcohol, and eating unhealthy food. Armed with this knowledge people will increasingly be able to make informed choices. These lifestyle choices can cut an individual's cancer risk by 30 percent.

Other game changers are early detection of bowel cancer - the enormous potential benefits of which are only just beginning to accrue - and screening for cervical cancer, which has led to Australia having one of the world's lowest cervical cancer mortality rates. Immunisation against the human papillomavirus, which triggers cervical cancer, is likely to further reduce disease burden. Hepatitis immunisation has also helped to protect us from liver cancer, however much more work is required in this area to assist increasing numbers of people at-risk.

Despite these successes, the plethora of confusing messages about cancer leaves the impression that interventions are not working.

In a minefield of bad news the new Cancer Council report clearly highlights that huge amounts of progress are being made with about 8000 deaths averted, or 61,000 averaged out over the past 20 years. The time period reviewed in this study featured widespread implementation of many cancer programs. 

The full success of many of the interventions has still to be seen. Australia has come a long way, but we can't rest on our laurels. We are world leaders in many areas of cancer interventions and we need to continue with this. We also need to keep up our successful global collaborations in a combined effort to discover more preventative measures, earlier detection methods and improved treatment to reduce the cancer burden in Australia and further afield.

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