NACCHO World Cancer Day : Cancer myths fuel fear amongst Aboriginal peoples


Over 200 people joined together at Musgrave Park in Brisbane on Sunday 2 February ahead of World Cancer Day to raise cancer awareness, prevention, early detection and treatment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The walk highlighted the importance of getting regular check ups, investigate early detection and to talk openly about all types of cancer and treatment.Reported by Ross Murray


NACCHO health alert: Download Report documents Aboriginal people are 50 per cent more likely to die from cancer than other Australians

Senior Research Fellow at Menzies School of Health Research, Associate Professor Gail Garvey says that cancer is the second leading cause of death amongst Indigenous people accounting, for greater numbers than diabetes or kidney disease. However, there is remerging myth amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that cancer will inevitably lead to death.

‘World Cancer Day was the trigger for having the event and it was all about dispelling the myths,’ says A/Prof Garvey.

‘I guess like many cultures Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples don’t speak openly about cancer, so this in turn can affect how someone understands cancer or how they even share what information is available about cancer. So what we wanted to do is have a day where people can speak openly about cancer and try and dispel some of those myths.’

A/Prof Garvey says that one of the myths amongst Indigenous Australians is they might think cancer is contagious or that it’s pay back, bad luck or even that it’s a result of something that they’ve done to bring on the disease. She says that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples might feel ashamed about having cancer which in turn fuels the fear of early detection.

‘One of the real problems  is that our people tend not to participate in screening programs because they’re worried about finding out about results … so they’re more likely to ignore a lump, bump or something a bit unusual,’ she says.

‘The word cancer itself is something that our community relate to equalling death.’

‘ [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples] do have higher mortality rates; that’s one of the reasons why communities see cancer as equalling death.’

Given the myths that surround cancer in Indigenous communities, A/Prof Garvey says that when patients do receive the news they have cancer they are more likely to return home to die.

‘But it’s so hard to translate to communities that there could be surgery or chemotherapy which could improve chances of survival, but [the common response] is ‘No I’ve got cancer, so that means I’m going to die’.

For more information about cancer research or information for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, click here.

Cancer now biggest killer in Australia, ahead of heart disease: WHO report

      By ABC medical reporter Sophie Scott and Alison Branley

Cancer has surpassed heart disease as the biggest killer in Australia, according to a new report from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The WHO’s World Cancer Report found 8.2 million people died from cancer globally in 2012, including 40,000 Australians.

The report was last released six years ago and this is the first major international update on the disease since then.

It found that cancer surpassed heart disease as the world’s biggest killer in 2011, with 7.87 million cancer deaths compared to 7.02 million from heart disease. Stroke was considered separately.

Global killer

  • 8.2 million deaths from cancer in 2012.
  • Lung, liver, stomach, colorectal and breast cancers cause most deaths.
  • 1.59 million lung cancer deaths in 2012.
  • 745,000 liver cancer deaths in 2012.
  • Tobacco use is biggest risk factor, accounting for 70 per cent of lung cancer deaths.
  • Africa, Asia, Central and South America account for 70 per cent of world’s cancer deaths.

In Australia and other Western countries, the rise in cancer cases has been attributed to ageing populations and increased screening.

Lifestyle has also been highlighted as a major factor, with cancer particularly prevalent in countries where people have a poor diet and inactive lifestyles, and countries with high smoking rates.

Doctors predict global cancer rates will increase by three-quarters over the next two decades and they expect 20 million new cases by 2025.

Prevention is better than cure

The report says 3.7 million cancer deaths could have been avoided by lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, reducing alcohol intake and maintaining a healthy weight.

“About 5 per cent of all cancers is due to alcohol consumption – that’s an important part of the preventable cancer story,” said Cancer Council Australia’s Terry Slevin.

“Let’s make no bones about it, alcohol is a class one known carcinogen, it’s listed by the World Health Organisation as such.”

Research shows women’s risk of breast cancer can increase by having as little as one alcoholic drink a day. For men, the risk of tumours increases with two to three drinks a day.

Lung cancer was the biggest killer globally. It was also the biggest killer among men, while breast cancer killed more women.

Mr Slevin said lung cancer was an area where treatments were less successful than other areas.

“That’s why prevention, when it comes to lung cancer, is so important,” he said.

Melanoma continued to be more of a problem in Australia than overseas, with Australians and New Zealanders twice as likely to be diagnosed than anywhere else in the world.

Prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed form of cancer in Australia, with the Cancer Council putting the number of diagnoses in 2009 at 21,800.

Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia chief executive Anthony Lowe says more than 3,300 Australian men die from the disease each year and one in four men over 85 will develop it.

“Many cancers including prostate cancer are disease of ageing and the population is ageing,” he said.

“Unfortunately the lifestyle that we live in Australia – lack of exercise, poor diet and high alcohol consumption are certainly risk factors.”

Worldwide there are more than 14 million cancer diagnoses each year, the report found, and it costs the world more than $1 trillion each year.

It says one-fifth of that could be avoided by investing in prevention strategies.

Cardiovascular disease as a whole still the most common cause of death

The Heart Foundation says while cancer may have overtaken heart disease as Australia’s biggest killer, when cardiovascular disease is looked at as a whole, it adds up to be the most common cause of death.

Heart Foundation national director Dr Rob Grenfell says cardiovascular disease, which includes strokes as well as heart and vascular diseases, killed 45,622 people in 2011.

It was closely followed by cancer, which claimed the lives of 43,721 Australians.

Heart disease alone killed 21,500.

Dr Grenfell says cancer and cardiovascular disease have common risk factors such as smoking, obesity and inactivity and could be tackled together.

“As a group of diseases, cancers and cardiovascular diseases are attributable to 60 per cent of the country’s deaths and both are largely preventable,” he said.

“If we were to have a coordinated approach to the management of these risk factors we would reduce the prevalence of preventable deaths.”

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