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News & Events March 14, 2022

One of the unexpected benefits of being director of a major research institute is that, in addition to spending time with other researchers and with patients in clinic, I get to mix with a very large cross section of the community, who support our cancer research fundraising initiatives.

These are generous people motivated by wanting to make a difference. They share their stories, powerfully and openly. Tears are not uncommon. It’s impossible to not be moved, often deeply.

They talk of the challenges of having cancer. They’re not just talking about the impacts of treatments, but also the fragmented nature of their cancer journey – simply keeping up with all the medical appointments, of trying to understand the treatment plan, and of having to attend so many different places for tests can be overwhelming. Often, they are surprised at how cumbersome and disjointed it all is.

It’s clear that a cancer journey is much more than a world-class treatment regime, which they receive in WA.

And for patients living in the country or remotely, it can be a logistical nightmare, sometimes too hard to overcome, which is part of the reason regional and rural Australia has a 7 per cent higher cancer mortality rate than metropolitan centres.

Nationally, that equates to 9,000 cancer deaths per year.

There are also disparities between survival rates based on different types of cancers.

For example, the five-year survival rates from 2013–2017 did not improve for patients with liver cancer, which hovers around 24 per cent, brain cancer 22 per cent, pancreas 14 per cent, and mesothelioma remains heartbreakingly low at only 8 per cent.

We need to address these disparities, and we need to listen to patients’ calls for a better cancer journey.

There are more than 50,000 Western Australians living with cancer. WA Health statistics published in 2020 show almost 13,500 people were diagnosed with cancer and 4,147 Western Australians died from it. Projections are that thousands of Western Australians will be given the terrible news this year that they have a form of cancer.

Based on national and international evidence, I have no doubt that Western Australia needs an approach to cancer treatment, where research and clinical trials, training and education for health professionals, tele-health and multi-disciplinary team-delivered patient care is all in the one location.

WA needs a truly comprehensive cancer centre with a strong presence in the regions. We need a comprehensive cancer centre with a focus on innovation, translational research, cutting-edge technology and world-first treatments for cancer patients.

A comprehensive cancer centre in WA would increase access to a model of care proven to produce better outcomes. And it would reduce the need for some Western Australian patients to travel east for their care.

It would also help stop our best and brightest medical professionals leaving WA for opportunities not currently available here, help attract world-class specialists to the State, free up general beds in our hospital system and, most importantly, deliver the best possible treatment to patients and a better, less fragmented cancer journey.

It’s the approach widely taken across the US, Europe and the UK. It’s the Peter MacCallum model in Victoria and the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse model in NSW.

We know that partnerships in cancer research and care accelerate scientific breakthroughs, deliver advances in cancer prevention, treatment and survival, and benefit patients wherever they live.

That is why there are currently discussions on developing an Australia-wide network of comprehensive cancer centres. Every mainland State other than WA has one in operation or in development.

As head of the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research, I am part of that discussion, and I am adamant that WA must not miss out.