Poor access to radiotherapy is killing rural cancer patients

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ASource: Daily Telegraph – Sue Dunlevy.

Cancer patients in the bush are up to 30 per cent more likely to die than those living in the city because they can’t access radiotherapy treatment.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists has estimated 18,000 cancer patients are missing out on lifesaving radiotherapy every year, many of them in rural areas.

A recent study published in the Medical Journal Australia found death rates from colorectal cancer rose 6 per cent for every 100 kilometres a patient lived away from a radiotherapy facility. Those living 200-399km away were 30 per cent more likely to die.

This is even though it costs just $7 million to install a linear accelerator to provide radiotherapy and around $750,000 a year to staff it.

Medical experts are pushing for the roll out of more radiotherapy units in the bush as one of the best ways to stop rural patients dying younger.

Many rural cancer patients are refusing lifesaving radiotherapy because they can’t afford time away from their farms or families to travel to major cities for up to seven weeks.

Incredibly, some mothers who can’t afford to spend six weeks away from their family while they have radiotherapy in the city have their breasts removed when cancer is detected.

“People who have appropriate indicators for radiotherapy are missing out on their treatment,” Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists president Professor Chris Milross said.

Professor Milross applauds the previous Labor government for providing $560 million to set up 26 regional cancer centres and dramatically expanding access to radiotherapy in the regions.

“The day they opened they were fully booked, and we have to look to providing more linear accelerators in them.” he said.

However, Professor Milross says “if you live in Bourke and Orange Tamworth it is still not convenient, you’ve got to travel”.

A look at the map shows most of these new centres hug the eastern coast of Australia, very few help those in western NSW, Queensland or Victoria, or inland South Australia and the Northern Territory.

A study by the college found Australia would need 40 new linear accelerators by 2017 to cope with growing demand.

University of NSW radiation oncology expert Professor Michael Barton says around a third of these new machines would be needed in rural Australia.

To be viable a radiotherapy unit needs to treat around 1000 new cancer cases a year and this requires a catchment population of 200,000 to 250,000 a year, he said.

It would be better to put many of the new units in existing cancer centres to take advantage of staff and expertise there, Professor Barton said. “It’s not just a matter of putting radiotherapy, you’ve got to put in chemotherapy and MRI and PET scanning for people to have their treatment properly staged,” he said…read more.

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