Calling for change on breast cancer issues

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead (1901–1978)

This well-known quote above is a timely reminder of people power as BCNA reflects on our advocacy efforts over the past few months and we look ahead to this year’s federal election.

The 2022 federal election presents an opportunity for us to advocate for improvements to Australia’s healthcare system and health policies in the interests of people diagnosed with breast cancer.

With over 160,000 members across Australia, we are an extensive and influential network that offers unique insight into the lived experience of breast cancer.

Our network understands the impact of policy decisions and how policy translates into action at a local level. Lessons learnt during the COVID-19 pandemic also mean we know that evidence-informed policy action can have meaningful and immediate impacts when implemented with consumers at the centre.

‘BCNA has been at the forefront of Australia’s ongoing response to COVID-19 over the past two years,’ says Vicki Durston, BCNA’s Director Policy, Advocacy and Member Support. ‘We know that this response is both causing and exaggerating unacceptable gaps in access to breast cancer optimal care, and our health systems are experiencing unprecedented strain.

‘With this in mind, BCNA has established some priority areas where further commitment is needed from the federal government to improve outcomes for those with breast cancer,’ she says.

Some of these areas are:

  • greater mental health support for those with cancer
  • reducing the financial burden of a breast cancer diagnosis
  • investment into health system recovery and sustainability
  • best use of telehealth.

The success of BCNA’s advocacy to date has always been to not only identify problems but, most importantly, to be involved in their solutions. As we progress work ahead of the 2022 federal election, we will be making specific recommendations to those contesting the election for meaningful policy changes that we know will improve outcomes for those with breast cancer. We’ll share more about these recommendations once the election has been announced, along with some practical ways you can help.

Improved mental health support for those with cancer

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has reported that the demand for mental health support has increased substantially compared with pre-COVID periods. Many within our network are struggling with the strain of the pandemic combined with the existing psychological impacts of a breast cancer diagnosis, creating increased burden on limited specialist mental health resources.

BCNA addressed some of these needs through resources such as Charlotte Tottman’s podcast series, ‘What You Don’t Know Until You Do’, launched in 2021. Ahead of the election, we will be calling on policy makers to consider the unique needs of those with a cancer diagnosis.

Reducing the financial burden of breast cancer

The financial burden of breast cancer has been a longstanding priority for BCNA. Our 2021 Breast Reconstruction in Australia Report highlighted the high out-of-pocket costs experienced by women accessing breast reconstruction in the private system, and our 2017 Financial Impact of Breast Cancer report outlined impacts in areas ranging from Medicare rebates to private health insurance.

The burden of having cancer, treatment and feeling crap was sitting on one shoulder and the, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve got no money, what am I going to do?’ burden was sitting on the other one. It just became this pervasive horrible thing that never went away. – Georgie, BCNA’s Financial Impact of Breast Cancer report.

Reducing the financial burden of breast cancer is BCNA’s year one priority in our Policy & Advocacy Strategy: Towards 2025 (see page 18) and will heavily influence our advocacy leading into this year’s election. BCNA will not only be calling for policy changes to increase and expand subsidies for important breast cancer treatments, but initiatives that facilitate greater access to financial support as well.

Investment in COVID-19 health system recovery and future resilience

The health environment has changed rapidly and drastically across Australia to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. We know that cancer care has been impacted by workforce shortages, staff burnout, reallocation of health resources, and the effects of high COVID-19 hospitalisations.

Over the last two years, BCNA has worked with various stakeholder groups and been the voice for our network on issues ranging from elective surgeries, lockdowns, the COVID-19 vaccine, and access to supportive care.

BCNA wants to ensure that Australia’s public health system is sustainable and capable of delivering the best possible care to those with breast cancer and will be calling for investment in the future of the specialist cancer workforce and for changes that address the significant elective surgery backlog.

Best use of telehealth

Our network has reported the benefits of more flexible care delivery through telehealth. It has helped those who are geographically isolated, or vulnerable to COVID-19. However, BCNA does not consider telehealth an appropriate replacement for face-to-face care, particularly for those receiving a cancer diagnosis or with inadequate access to digital technology.

‘Telehealth appointments were not as reassuring or did not feel as supportive as face-to-face appointments face-to-face appointments.’ – COVID-19 impact survey respondent.

BCNA welcomed the long-term commitment to telehealth announced at the end of 2021, but continued to advocate for immediate changes to retain the flexibility of this service as COVID-19 cases increased. This advocacy was successful with the reinstatement of longer telephone telehealth consultations on the Medicare Benefits Scheme in January this year. We will continue to call for further investment to fully realise telehealth’s potential and consider how optimal care can be maintained regardless of how it is delivered.

How you can help

Add your voice to our call for action on the issues that matter most to people with breast cancer. Stay tuned for opportunities to engage with and support our election asks, including getting in touch with your local politicians and candidates.

Issue 90
Autumn 2022