Growing divide in cancer patient survival

Tuesday 12 August, 2014

People with rarer cancers face the same poor prognosis of a generation ago, according to new data.

The Victorian Cancer Registry data reveals there is a significant divide between survival outcomes for patients with rare or less common cancers compared to those with common cancers; and that the divide is growing.

An example is pancreatic cancer, which 20 years ago had a five-year survival of 3 percent. Today, a Victorian diagnosed with pancreatic cancer still faces a poor prognosis with their five-year survival sitting at 6 percent. In contrast, the five-year survival for all cancers has jumped from 47 percent to 66 percent over the past two decades.

Cancer Council Victoria CEO Todd Harper said in order to drive a dramatic increase in survival for all types of cancer there must be significant investment in long-term research that focuses on high mortality cancers such as those of the pancreas, brain and ovary.

“We won’t change this situation overnight. It is going to take a significant investment over the long haul, as well as genuine collaboration between research bodies – but I believe we can turn around such poor survival outcomes,” Mr Harper said.

Cancer Council Victoria is calling on the next Victorian government to commit $57.5 million over five years, beginning with an initial investment of $2.75 million in 2015-16.

“This is an opportunity for Victoria to lead the nation in our efforts to save more lives,” Mr Harper said.

More than 1500 Victorians are already backing this call, with 1505 people choosing “surviving all cancers” as one of their top three cancer priorities in the lead-up to the November state election.

Cancer Council surveyed 2495 Victorians between July and August this year, and found 60 percent support the push for increased research dollars into rare and less common cancers.

Erica Ruck, of north-east Victoria, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at age 60 – the same age that her mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer some 30 years prior.

“While my story differs from my mother’s in some aspects, one thing has stayed the same – the very poor prognosis for people with pancreatic cancer. Nearly as many people die with pancreatic cancer now as they did in 1982 but no one wants to talk about it.”

Ms Ruck’s mother, Margaret, died six weeks after her diagnosis was confirmed in 1982. Ms Ruck, who is now 63, doesn’t want anyone else to face such a situation.

“Pancreatic cancer is nasty because, a little like ovarian cancer, the symptoms can be vague and people are often not diagnosed until it’s well advanced. A greater understanding of the disease may lead to earlier detection, which may improve the outcome for those diagnosed,” she said.

“By advocating for change, I feel like I am contributing to finding better outcomes for others, including my four daughters and my grandchildren. I certainly don't want them to be lining up for this disease.”