Health Minister David Clark: Making cancer care fairer

Opinion 09/08/2019

There are few words that people dread hearing more from their doctor than cancer. 

Just about everyone who’s reading this will know someone who has faced cancer, and it is the biggest cause of death in New Zealand.

So improving cancer care is a big priority for the Government. We want to make sure that everyone has access to quality cancer care, no matter who they are and where they live.

That’s why this week the Prime Minister announced a major investment in cancer care, so that we can replace half of the Linear Accelerators in New Zealand over the next three years. These LINAC machines provide radiation treatment to people with bowel, breast, lung and other cancers.

We know that radiation treatment could help one out of every two people with cancer, but currently only one in three are accessing it. 

Why is that? Well, for one thing many regions don’t have a LINAC, meaning hundreds of cancer patients are forced to travel long distances to get the treatment they need. And we know some people chose not to travel at all, and miss out altogether.

Last week I spoke to Julie Salisbury from Taranaki who had to take leave without pay to travel to Palmerston North for her treatment. Thankfully she is now in remission, but she told me how difficult that travel was for her family.

So we’re putting Linear Accelerators into three new regions for the first time – Hawke’s Bay, Taranaki and Northland. That will make a huge difference to people in Julie’s situation in future.

Of course, there have been real advances in the technology so these machines will mean better outcomes as well. For example, we know for some lung cancers, newer technology can reduce treatment times from as much as six weeks to as little as three days. It can also mean improved life expectancy when every day is precious

Under the last Government it was left to local DHBs to pay for these machines, which have a useful life of about ten years. That meant some machines were used longer than they should be, with the oldest LINAC still in use now being 16 years old.

Radiation is not the only treatment for cancer, of course. So it was also great to see news this week that PHARMAC is looking to fund two new cancer medicines – Kadcyla for advanced breast cancer, and Alectinib for lung cancer.

We know we’ve got much more work to do to make up for nine years of underinvestment under National, but this Government is committed to rebuilding our public health service and giving everybody a fair go. 

That’s what people living with cancer deserve.