Breast cancer is the most common cancer in Australian women and kills more than 3000 women nationally each year. While survival rates have greatly improved in recent decades as a result of investment in medical research, unfortunately about 10 women in Australia are still dying of breast cancer each day.
It’s not cancer in the breast that kills women. It is when it spreads to vital organs such as the liver, lungs or brain that it becomes deadly. Although metastatic breast cancer is generally deemed incurable and will eventually result in death, it is treatable and for some people can be controlled for many years.
Women and men living with metastatic breast cancer deserve the very best treatment, care, support and consideration from the Australian community as they go through the daily challenges of living with an incurable illness and lifelong treatment.
This issue is on the agenda of NSW and Victorian governments. The NSW Parliament is considering a Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill with cross party support. In Victoria last week, the Ministerial Advisory Panel on Voluntary Assisted Dying released a report and recommendations before draft legislation. BCNA attended the briefing on the report provided by Professor Brian Owler.
There is no doubt many people feel strongly about this issue on both sides of the fence, but it is clear that the majority of Australians favour having the option of voluntary assisted dying, where a patient is close to the end of their life and is in pain and distressed. The important qualification to make is that we are talking about people who can exercise judgement in a meaningful way about such an important decision to hasten the end of life.
It is important that any legislation includes safeguards for health professionals, the patient and their family members.
A range of public opinion polls has shown support for assisted dying in the vicinity of three-quarters of the Australian population. This has been borne out in Breast Cancer Network Australia’s (BCNA) research.
More than 10,000 Australians who are living with, or survivors of, breast cancer contributed to a broad ranging survey in the first half of this year. Among many matters, they were asked whether voluntary assisted euthanasia should be made legal in Australia for people who are near the end of their life and suffering.
Seventy-five per cent of respondents said they were supportive of people having access to medically assisted dying. The survey also showed the longer someone had been living with metastatic cancer the more supportive they were of assisted dying, with 96 per cent of women who had been living with metastatic breast cancer for five or more years in favour of legal change.
Assisted dying is by no means a replacement for palliative care. People who are in the end stages of their life need our compassion and support to live well for as long as possible and to experience the best possible death. BCNA strongly advocates for improved access to palliative care services noting that this requires an injection of new funding from all Australian governments.
BCNA does not have a formal position on assisted dying, however, it is important we reflect the voice of all those living with breast cancer. It is important that everyone with an interest in end of life, which ultimately is all of us, understands the issues and has a chance to contribute to the debate.