Cancer is the disease that everyone ‘knows’ because, as The Cancer Society’s Daffodil Day marketing tells us each year, one in three New Zealanders are affected by cancer. What’s less known is that now, in New Zealand, one in three people who get cancer can be cured if their disease is found and treated in time.
Cancer accounts for about one in six deaths and is the world’s second biggest cause of death. In 2018 that was about 9.6 million deaths worldwide. Although cancer is often referred to as a single condition, it consists of more than 100 different diseases and can arise in many sites and behave differently depending on where it originates. What cancers do have in common is that they’re caused by cells losing control, multiplying, and damaging surrounding healthy tissues. This can be due to genetics, lifestyle (i.e. alcohol or smoking) or exposure to environmental factors like the sun.
New Zealand has one of the highest rates of cancer in the world. Seventy percent of cancers occur in people older than 50 and those rates increase with age. But it’s thought that over time, as we live longer, more people will get cancer, but fewer will potentially die from it.
Advances in treatment are such that in many cases patients who were once diagnosed as terminal are now living for years longer than expected, with cancer treated as a chronic condition, rather than a death sentence. That’s a profound change. A combination of radiation, surgery, new medications, and new classes of drugs such as the biologics (drugs created from or containing components of living organisms) are extending people’s lives by years and in some cases decades. Childhood leukaemia is a good example, with survival rates far higher than they previously were. Multiple myeloma, a cancer for which treatment was once very limited, now has many treatment options to extend the person’s life.
Central to catching cancer early is having a strong relationship with your GP and knowing what your ‘normal’ is. That means performing regular self-checks, keeping on top of your preventative screening tests, and contacting your GP for a check-up as soon as you find or feel something that’s not right for you. Visiting your GP for a lump that turns out to be harmless is much preferable to waiting too long so that treatment is no longer be effective.
Every New Zealander has a right to their own GP and seeing the same one over time brings the benefits of continuity. It means your GP knows you and your health history and can help coordinate and advise on the early screening and early detection procedures now available. Cancer screening can include three-yearly cervical screening, prostate checks (if right for the individual) for men every two years from the age of 50 to 75, mammogram screening every three years for women between 45 to 70, and yearly skin checks for melanomas and skin cancers. In many parts of the country, bowel screening is now being rolled out too. There are also prevention strategies to consider like help to quit smoking (the leading cause of lung cancer, one of the leading cancer deaths in New Zealand), lifestyle changes, and help with food and alcohol choices.
Early detection of cancer is the key. From your initial GP visit, to each consecutive visit, your continuing relationship with your GP ensures continuity of care, the right information around change programmes and subsidies, and the optimum support at a time when you will need it most. Regardless of how long the pathway to health is (or if it’s just confirmation that you’re already healthy) it all starts with the relationship with your GP.