Everyone is affected by cancer. Someone is diagnosed with cancer on average every day and someone dies from cancer every second day in our Nelson/Tasman region. Amazing progress has been made with new and better treatments but much more needs to be done in saving lives from this cruel disease.
Many Nelsonians have signed Blair Vinings 130,000 strong petition to Parliament seeking a National Cancer Agency and better and more consistent care for cancer sufferers. Blair, a 38 year old Southland farmer, supported by his wife and two young daughters, is battling terminal bowel cancer. He says he has been let down by the health system with delayed appointments and denial of medicine available elsewhere.
It is incredibly brave of the Vining family, with limited time left together, to be leading this debate. Parliament needs to take heed of their message. It is not good enough that New Zealand’s cancer care is substandard to Australia. We would save 650 kiwi lives a year, or 13 a year in Nelson and Tasman, if we had the same access to the same drugs and timelines of treatments as across the Tasman.
The Government is failing to live up to its promises on cancer care. Labour promised a new $20 million fund for new drugs but has not delivered. They also promised a National Cancer Agency but the Prime Minister has now back pedalled saying its assessing other options.
I also take issue with the Labour Government’s decision to cancel the requirement for District Health Boards to measure and report on cancer treatment. National’s Faster Cancer Treatment targets required patients to see a specialist for diagnosis within two weeks of referral from a GP and that their treatment begin within 62 days.
The debate about new cancer drugs does need to be handled with care. Pharmaceutical companies can overstate the benefits of their new drugs and exploit the vulnerability of cancer patients. We need to increase the budget for medications but back our medical professionals in their judgements about which drugs will give the most benefit.
The battle against cancer is not just for the parliament to debate. We can all make lifestyle decisions to reduce the risks. Smoking remains the worst contributor and we must help persuade our family, friends and work colleagues to give up. This one change would reduce cancer deaths by a third.
We can also save lives by supporting screening programmes for breast, prostate, cervical and bowel cancer. Early detection means treatment is much more likely to be successful. The National Government approved the nationwide Bowel Screening programme in 2016 that is currently being rolled out in Nelson. We must support our District Health Board in implementing this life saving programme by positively responding to the postal request for samples. It is not pleasant but necessary.
I pay tribute to our oncologists, doctors, nurses and the Cancer Society for all the support they give Nelsonians and their families in treating and caring for those with cancer. We must do more to support their work in saving lives.