South-west cancer patients to have greater access to trials and treatment

Fight to lift survival rates

South-west cancer patients will have increased access to cancer trials previously out of reach, in a bid to improve regional Victorian survival rates. 

Technology: South West Regional Cancer Centre Icon Group charge radiation therapist Louis Huynh (front) and radiation therapists Lauren Clothier and Loretta Marr with the True Beam Linear Accelerator. Picture: Christine Ansorge

Technology: South West Regional Cancer Centre Icon Group charge radiation therapist Louis Huynh (front) and radiation therapists Lauren Clothier and Loretta Marr with the True Beam Linear Accelerator. Picture: Christine Ansorge

The five-year survival rate for regional Victorian cancer patients sits at 65 per cent compared to 69 per cent in metropolitan areas.

In the coming months, the South West Regional Cancer Centre will provide patients with greater access to various trials and treatments, via teleconferencing, without having to leave Warrnambool. 

Warrnambool Associate Professor Ian Collins said it was an exciting development and meant they could participate in tele-trials from his office with treatment delivered at the Warrnambool centre. Between 40 and 50 of the centre’s patients are currently participating in eight different clinical trials.

He said teleconferencing would provide greater access to trials, treatments and drugs for patients who may otherwise been unable to participate in them. “At the moment if I offer someone a trial, half the time they will say ‘I know it might help me but I don’t want to have to travel to Melbourne because of the time away from family, because of the hassle, because of the extra expense of going up there for treatment’,” he said. 

“The trials have been around in Warrnambool for about 10 years and they're slowly growing, but we don’t always have access to all the trials that a patient might need, so we use clinical trials so that patients can access new drugs that we think are going to help them. Not every patient with cancer will need a clinical trial but enough of them do to want us to get better access to trials.

“There’s no reason we can’t use Skype and sharing files to use technology to ensure a patient doesn't physically have to travel. There are some trials that work really well and there are drugs that we commonly use that even three or four years ago were available on a trial and patients are alive much longer than we would have expected.”

He said a lot of oncology in far North Queensland was delivered using tele-hub because of its remoteness.

To help address the disparity, Associate Professor Collins was one of two doctors chosen to head a Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre (VCCC) initiative to improve regional patients’ access to cancer research, treatment, care and clinical trials. He said tele-trials would make a big difference to his patients who would be more willing to participate closer to home and it would be rolled out in regional Victoria as part of the new role. “Ultimately they start off doing it between Warrnambool and Peter Mac (Callum Cancer Centre) or Albury and Peter Mac but it could be a trial in Bendigo and patients from all over Victoria can be on that trial without having to travel to Bendigo. It could be a trial in Sydney or Texas in the States. It could be anywhere once we get it rolled out.”

Centre’s changing lives

Of the patients undergoing radiotherapy at the South West Regional Cancer Centre, almost 70 per cent of people are from outside the Warrnambool area.

In the past two years, almost 600 patients have received radiotherapy at the centre, saving regional patients an estimated 574,000 kilometres of travelling to other cities for treatment. 

Icon Group chief executive Mark Middleton said the centre had helped to reduce the burden of travel and dislocation from support networks that patients and their families would have otherwise experienced.

“Patients come from all directions; from out west past the Victoria /South Australia border at Mount Gambier, to further up north as far as Balmoral, and east from Colac,” he said. “In fact, nearly 70 per cent of our treatments have been for patients outside of Warrnambool.”

The centre’s radiotherapy services were transitioned from Epworth HealthCare to Icon Group in January. 

Charge radiation therapist Louis Huynh said cancers treated included lung, breast, prostate and skin cancers. He said breast and skin cancers and palliative work made up the bulk of the patient load. 

“It’s been good to see a lot of palliative cases come through as well, because they probably wouldn’t have travelled to Ballarat or Geelong for these sorts of treatments if they’re having a short course for pain management. Knowing we can give them some comfort via treatment close to home is important,” Mr Huynh said.

He said working with Icon, which had 26 centres nationally, meant greater access to physicists, doctors and expertise from across the country.  “I’ve come from the city,” he said. “Having worked out here since the centre’s inception in July 2016, the vibe that I get from the community is that everyone, not only patients but their family and their friends, are so grateful that the service is here.” 

In the past two years, South West Healthcare has delivered almost 3900 chemotherapy treatments to 590 patients. Of those, 2095 were delivered to 308 patients in the last financial year. 

The centre was the culmination of seven and-a-half years of campaigning and lobbying government. It was led by Warrnambool resident Vicki Jellie and the Peter’s Project Foundation for an integrated cancer centre for south-west Victoria and south-east South Australian residents, after losing her husband, Peter to cancer.

Former Victorian premier Denis Napthine said the centre was saving lives and had made an enormous difference. “I think it is one of the greater things that has been done for Warrnambool and the south-west in many many years,” he said.  

A friendly face during a difficult time

GLENDA Mugavin knows what it’s like to be on both of the fence at the South West Regional Cancer Centre.

When Peter’s Project was first muted Mrs Mugavin knew she’d like to volunteer at the centre but in February 2016 she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I had chemotherapy and surgery at the St John of God Hospital and I had radiation at the cancer centre,” she said.

Once she was given the all clear Mrs Mugavin began her volunteer work and every Wednesday morning she is a welcoming face at the centre.

“There’s normally someone on a morning and afternoon shift and we also have drivers who can go and pick up patients and bring them and take them home,” she said. 

“Other than that we make cups of tea for people, if they look a bit lost we direct them where to go, if they just want to have a chat we have a chat. If someone comes in and looks a bit lost I can say that I’ve been on the other side and you sought of see that they think you do get it. It’s a different understanding I think. If I can make someone smile then that’s a plus.”

Mrs Mugavin is a participant in the centre’s Cancer Survivorship Program which aims to support people through their transition to wellness and recovery after treatment.

“After you finish treatment and your doctor lets you get on with your life, you kind of feel a bit lost, you’re unsure what to do next,” she said.

“This program will really help a lot of people after their treatment and it’s just great to have services like this, especially in regional towns. We don’t always get the services we need, and we are expected to go into the city, I know this will really help people in this region.

“It was great to have my treatment here, I could have my 20 minutes of radiation and then go to work. I think we’ve got the best people here, outside the metro areas, and you can just feel confident in your treatment.”