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.”

On World Cancer Day NACCHO supports new network to push Indigenous cancer into the spotlight

Cancer 1

A new national cancer research network will launch on World Cancer Day aimed at improving quality of life and survival rates among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cancer patients in Australia.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.


 The National Indigenous Cancer Network (NICaN) launches at Cancer Council Australia in Sydney today; it encourages and supports collaboration in Indigenous cancer research and the delivery of services to Indigenous people with cancer, including carers and families.

Senior cancer researcher Associate Professor Gail Garvey of the Menzies School of Health Research said today’s launch, fittingly coinciding with World Cancer Day, represents a huge step forward towards closing the gap on Indigenous cancer mortality rates.

“Until now cancer has been a low priority on the Indigenous health agenda, despite the disease being the second leading cause of death among Indigenous people and accounting for a greater number of deaths each year than diabetes and kidney disease.

“We know that Indigenous people with cancer have more advanced disease when diagnosed, are less likely to receive treatment, and are more likely to die from their cancers than other Australians. There is a clear need to improve health services for people with cancer by utilising the information we do have and by identifying knowledge gaps.

 “NICaN is about making sure that what’s known about cancer in Indigenous Australians is available for use by people with cancer, their families, practitioners, policy makers and researchers,” Assoc Prof Garvey said.

 Professor Ian Olver, CEO, Cancer Council Australia said NICaN will bring together key researchers, practitioners, and consumer advocacy groups from across Australia.

“NICaN will actively promote the conversion of research knowledge into Australian health policy and practices, as well as identify areas where more research is needed.”

 Indigenous breast cancer survivor Adelaide Saylor joined today’s launch to raise awareness about NICaN and the 2013 World Cancer Day theme: ‘dispelling damaging myths and misconceptions about cancer’.

 Mrs Saylor, who was born in Babinda, North Queensland, and lives in Brisbane, said this year’s theme was particularly relevant given the lack of open discussion and general awareness about cancer in many Indigenous communities.

 “I had breast cancer two years ago and the only reason I got checked was because my husband forced me to go to an appointment. I was lucky because the tumor was only the size of a grain of rice and I recovered after chemotherapy.

 “I didn’t know much about cancer because it was never spoken about with our mob even though four of my aunties were diagnosed with cancer – two with bowel cancer; one with cervical cancer; and one with breast cancer. Two of my aunties later died. That forced my other aunties to act and now they’re living healthy normal lives.

“I think NICaN is a wonderful initiative because it will raise awareness amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and that is desperately needed,” said Mrs Saylor.

  Along with NICaN network meetings and roundtables, NICaN’s resources  include plain language information about cancer, state and national policies and strategies that address cancer among Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples, programs and projects, a comprehensive depository of publications and organisations, conference presentations, and workforce and training opportunities.

 NICaN is a partnership between Menzies School of Health Research, the Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet, the Lowitja Institute, Cancer Council Australia and Indigenous audiences, consumers, researchers and health professionals from a broad range of disciplines, service providers, private sector and government organisations.

 For more background read:
For more information visit 

Facts about Indigenous cancer

  • Cancer survival is lower for Indigenous Australians than it is for non-Indigenous Australians. It is the second leading cause of death among Indigenous people, accounting for a greater number of deaths each year than diabetes and kidney disease
  • The death rate for all cancers combined and for most individual cancers is significantly higher for Indigenous than other Australians: e.g. cervical cancer (4.4 times), lung cancer (1.8), pancreatic cancer (1.3) and breast cancer in females (1.3)
  • Indigenous Australians have a much lower incidence of some cancers compared to other Australians (breast, prostate, testicular, colorectal and brain cancer, melanoma of skin, lymphoma and leukaemia) but they have a much higher incidence of others (lung and other smoking-related cancers, cervix, uterus and liver cancer).

 For example:

  • Cervical cancer incidence rate is almost three times as higher for Indigenous Australians as for non-Indigenous Australians (18 and 7 per 100,000 respectively).
  • Incidence rates of lung cancer are significantly higher for Indigenous Australians than for non-Indigenous Australians (1.9 times)
  • Most of the cancers that have a high occurrence among Indigenous people are preventable, including cervix, liver and smoking related cancers
  • Indigenous adult cancer patients have substantial unmet supportive care needs. Their highest needs include additional support with psychological and practical assistance
  • Basic infrastructure and logistical issues may also impede Indigenous people’s access to cancer care and treatment services. These include a lack in the provision of transport and having appropriate travel arrangements, and suitable accommodation for both the patient and their support person

Menzies Background

Menzies School of Health Research is a national leader in Indigenous and tropical health research. It is the only medical research institute in the Northern Territory, with more than 300 staff working in over 60 communities across central and northern Australia, as well as developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Menzies is also a significant contributor to health education and research training.

NACCHO partnership with Menzies Talking about the Smokes (TATS)