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Cancer Research Valuable Tool

10 May 2002

New research which suggests greater potential for reducing cancer in New Zealand is timely, the Ministry of Health says.

A New Zealand Medical Journal article by Professor David Skegg and Dr Margaret McCredie published today, suggests proportionately, about 800 more New Zealanders die from cancer than Australians a year.

The research found particularly higher rates for colorectal cancer in both males and females and for lung and breast cancer in females. Since this data was collected in 1996/7 breast cancer screening has been introduced in New Zealand (in 1998) seven years after it was introduced in Australia, to assist in the early detection and treatment of breast cancer.

"This new research will be valuable to the Cancer Control Steering Group set up last year to come up with long-term and short-term approaches to control one of this country's biggest health problems,"spokesman Dr Colin Feek said.

"The Ministry agrees with the comment in the study: 'the chief aim of the present study was to identify priorities for research and public health action'".

The Ministry is currently finalising analysis of five year cancer survival statistics, as mentioned in Professor Skegg's study. The provisional data gives a more representational view of New Zealand's survival rates (proportion of people with a particular form of cancer that survive for five years from diagnosis) for colorectal, breast and lung cancers.

These rates give a variable picture, with New Zealand having lower survival rates compared to some countries but higher rates than others. The Ministry is also working with the prestigious research group, the New York based Commonwealth Fund to determine accurate comparable five year survival rates for Canada, US, UK, Australia and New Zealand.

"Cancers, after cardiovascular diseases, are the second leading cause of death (27 percent) and a major cause of hospitalisation (7 percent) in New Zealand. Excluding skin cancers other than melanoma, there are about 16,500 new cases of cancer each year, most of them in people who are middle-aged and older."

Dr Feek, deputy Director-General Clinical Services, said the Cancer Control Steering Group was working on a draft cancer control strategy, expected to be available for consultation late this year. A final strategy is expected early 2003.

A partnership between the NZ Cancer Control Trust and the Ministry of Health, the Steering Group is collating advice from five small expert working groups with expertise in cancer prevention, early detection and screening, treatment, support and rehabilitation, and palliative care.

"This research will be a valuable addition to that advice," Dr Feek said. "Government has already identified reducing the incidence and impact of cancer as a priority in the New Zealand Health Strategy. This work reinforces the importance of doing so if we are to improve our overall health and wellbeing."

Dr Feek said the Ministry is committed to cancer prevention, early detection and treatment to reduce the number of resulting deaths, and has a number of initiatives in place to reduce the rates of a number of different cancers.

"The Ministry actively promotes healthy lifestyles that will help prevent cancer, including a good diet, exercise, limiting alcohol intake and being smokefree. The Ministry and the public can't ever be complacent, and this study reminds us of that."

New Zealand takes a four-pronged approach to tobacco control, comprising health promotion, legislation and enforcement, tobacco taxation, and quit smoking support. In recent years there have been increases in tobacco taxation by almost a dollar a packet in May 2000, stronger health warnings on tobacco products in December 1999 and a very strong public response to subsidised nicotine patches and gum through a 24 hour national quitline service.

"We need to continue our efforts with tobacco control programmes, breast and cervical cancer screening programmes, and in the promotion of health and safety messages about alcohol, exercise and diet."

Dr Feek said Dr Skegg is one of the country's leading cancer control experts and had made important contributions to improving cancer detection, prevention and treatment.



The Ministry is committed to cancer prevention, early detection and treatment to reduce the number of resulting deaths, and has a number of initiatives in place to reduce the rates of a number of different cancers.

A nationwide breast cancer screening programme, Breastscreen Aotearoa established in December, 1998 aims to cut breast cancer deaths by 25-30 per cent. International research shows this is achievable if 70 per cent of women aged 50-64 years enrol in the programme.

There are more than one million women enrolled in the National Cervical Screening Programme (NCSP). The programme has been effective in reducing the rate of incidence and death from cervical cancer. In the 10 years between 1987 and 1997 the rate of cervical cancer incidence reduced by 39 percent while the rate of death reduced by 44 percent over the same period.

The health sector has been targeting lung cancer statistics but it takes about 20-30 years before reductions in tobacco smoking by younger people flow through to reduced lung cancer rates. The prevalence of tobacco smoking and consumption of tobacco products had dropped steadily since the late 1970s.

There have been continuing improvements to the New Zealand system for recording cancer statistics. For example, to provide accurate statistics, the Ministry counts the actual number of cancers, not the number of people with cancer. Therefore, people with two different forms of cancer are effectively recorded twice (once for each form of cancer).

The Ministry actively promotes healthy lifestyles that will help prevent cancer, including a good diet, exercise, limiting alcohol intake and being smokefree. Non governmental groups including the National Health Foundation, Health Sponsorship Council and Cancer Society play significant roles in helping to reduce cancer deaths also.

The NZ Guidelines Group will be shortly releasing a guideline for both health professionals and the public on the surveillance and management of people at high risk for colorectal cancer.


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