Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Cancer Voices Advocate in NSW Parliament

Kathy Smith was elected at the March 2015 election in New South Wales and is now the member for the Gosford Electorate.

Ms Smith recently gave her inaugural speech in the Legislative Assembly. 

We have provided an excerpt from this speech for those people interested in           the consumer experience of cancer services and the why we advocate for improved access. While Ms Smith is talking about the Central Coast many of the same issues apply to the Capital Region around Canberra. 

Earlier, in 1996, I had been diagnosed with cancer and during treatment I had become aware of an elderly lady who had to travel from Wyong to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital for radiotherapy treatment each day for six weeks. She travelled by bus and train, and what torture that must have been for her. I was living in Hornsby at the time of my diagnosis and I was fortunate enough to be able to afford private radiotherapy treatment only 10 minutes away from home and my place of work. Silly or not, I was left with a feeling of guilt knowing that this much older lady was having to struggle to travel for treatment while I could be driven for mine without any effort on my part. 

On moving to the Central Coast, I was appalled to find that the only change to the local situation concerning radiotherapy treatment was the establishment of a private facility. However, that facility cost cancer patients thousands of dollars if they were to have treatment locally rather than travelling for public—that is, no cost to patient—treatment. As we were in a low socio-economic area, this was an impossible situation for some and many people were incurring debt to pay for treatment. That debt would mean many years of repayments and many years of depriving themselves in order to make them. Others were forgoing this lifesaving treatment altogether in the hope that the doctors were wrong. 

Being a person who always spoke up for the underdog and who took on the battles of those not able to fight for themselves, it was inevitable that I would do something to draw attention to this dreadful situation and a group of us began campaigning for the provision of public radiotherapy locally in 2006. It was an intense campaign, and it was only me and my very loyal and beautiful friend Kimberly Bates who continued through to the end. We had support from the then members for Wyong and Gosford, David Harris and Marie Andrews. In April 2010, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Premier Kristina Keneally came to Gosford to announce joint State and Federal funding of more than $38 million for the construction of the Central Coast Cancer Centre, which of course included the public radiotherapy facilities for which we had battled so hard. On that day I had been discharged from hospital following the removal of a mouth cancer for less than 24 hours and Mr Rudd must have thought I had a very unusual way of speaking. 

The Prime Minister praised the actions of consumer advocates for bringing the problem to the Government's attention. He pointed out that even though politicians think they know what is needed by the community this knowledge does not always tally with what the public really wants. It had been made very clear to us by senior politicians at both State and Federal levels that without the public action the Central Coast would not have been in the running for public radiotherapy for many years. As I recall, we were number seven on the list, so public advocacy works. Today I am pleased to report that the number of people on the Central Coast receiving lifesaving radiotherapy has increased dramatically—I understand by about 22 per cent. This is not the number of people deciding to be treated locally rather than travelling for treatment; this is an increase in the number of people who previously would not have had any treatment. It is impossible to say how many of these people would have missed out or who would not have survived under the previous arrangements. However, statistics demonstrate what a tremendous investment by the Labor Government in cancer survival this public facility has been. So, fellow members, let us all listen to the public advocates in our area when they come to us with an issue. Many lives may be helped. 

The radiotherapy campaign on the Central Coast also introduced to me broader State and national issues that were in need of cancer consumer advocacy. Cancer directly affects one in three of us, but many more indirectly when our friends and family are impacted by this disease. While I had been campaigning on the Central Coast I had also been working as a consumer advocate with the Cancer Voices movement in Australia. Cancer Voices is the largest truly independent, non-funded cancer consumer organisation in Australia. I became the chair of Cancer Voices NSW as well as an executive committee member of Cancer Voices Australia. During my time with Cancer Voices, many battles were fought and won at both State and Federal levels. There is still much to be done in the cancer area, but I came to realise that the time had come to return to my own backyard and to work to the best of my abilities to continue to improve the lives of people on the Central Coast. There was never any question but that that would be done with the Labor Party.

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