Sheva Butler experienced cancer treatment in regional and urban Queensland - and it makes all the difference. Photo/Holly Cormack.
Sheva Butler experienced cancer treatment in regional and urban Queensland - and it makes all the difference. Photo/Holly Cormack.

Cancer stats reveal harrowing truth for South Burnett

CANCER patients living in the South Burnett are more likely to die from the devilish disease than those in surrounding areas, with the excess death rate stretching a frightening 15 per cent above the national average. Having received treatment in the South Burnett, Toowoomba and the Sunshine Coast, cancer survivor Sheva Butler sheds some light on why this might be the case.

The Australian Cancer Atlas, which shows national patterns in cancer incidence and survival rates for 20 of the most common cancers in Australia, reveals the excess death rate due to cancer is shockingly high in the South and Central Burnett in comparison to surrounding areas, including Toowoomba, the Sunshine Coast, and even the North Burnett.

For those living in Murgon, Cherbourg and Wondai in particular, the excess death rate from cancer is 15 per cent above the national average. The rate of diagnosis, however, is only 6 per cent for these towns.

The excess death rate for Kumbia is 15 per cent and 11 per cent for Nanango, while the diagnosis rate is a mere one to four per cent above average.

The excess death rate for Wondai, Murgon and Cherbourg from cancer is 15 per cent above the national average. Photo/Australian Cancer Atlas
The excess death rate for Wondai, Murgon and Cherbourg from cancer is 15 per cent above the national average. Photo/Australian Cancer Atlas

It should be noted these statistics are for all cancers combined, and differences can exist depending on the type.

For example, in Wondai, Murgon and Cherbourg, the incidence of head and neck cancers are 31 per cent above the national average, however these towns are below average for liver and thyroid cancer.

In comparison to the high excess death rate, the diagnosis rate for cancer in the South Burnett is comparatively low, meaning people may not be getting tested frequently enough to save their life. File Photo.
In comparison to the high excess death rate, the diagnosis rate for cancer in the South Burnett is comparatively low, meaning people may not be getting tested frequently enough to save their life. File Photo.

According to a spokesman from the Cancer Council, “there is a general pattern that cancer survival outcomes are better for people living closer to cancer treatment centres than those living further away“.

This is partly due to people in more regional and remote areas being faced with more decisions about juggling family and work responsibilities with the treatment needs for their cancer.

When Ms Butler discovered an abnormal lump back in 2017, she didn’t think much of it at first. But a seemingly tiny change in the body can change a life entirely, launching her into a gruelling two-year cancer treatment program fraught with complications and setbacks.

Having undergone treatment in both regional and urban locations, Ms Butler is able to give a unique insight into the differing experiences of a cancer patient in the Sunshine Coast versus Kingaroy, and offer insight into why the survival rate is higher in urban areas.

That said, Ms Butler also had one critical thing going for her - a uniquely positive attitude and a willingness to fearlessly face up to her reality. She never took the mentality of a victim, but rather one of a warrior, who was ready to fight back against cancer every step of the way.

“The doctors at Toowoomba said it’s the positivity that gets you through. They know whether you’re going to be in the higher percentage or lower percentage just by talking to you,” she said.

“Even with the hurdles I had, it could have killed me, but I wasn’t going to let it.”

Between the Sunshine Coast, Toowoomba and the South Burnett, Ms Butler did notice some key differences, including access to cancer specialists and how humanly (or poorly) patients are treated.

“The Sunshine Coast - just the way they did everything was different. They seemed to have more experience in how to put yourself in the position of the patient,” Ms Butler said.

Similarly, her experience with Toowoomba Hospital was nothing short of positive, including her treatment by medical staff and her stay at the Olive McMahon Lodge, which is attended by staff from the Cancer Council.

“They provide free wigs, they provide free care, they provide a travel scheme from the hospital to the lodge. They’ve got a kitchen so you can make your own food, and they provide food if you don’t have any,” she said.

“They’ve got DVDs and reading material, there’s games, and a little seating area to talk to other people. That treatment is brilliant.”

Unfortunately, the same did not apply when she received care in the South Burnett.

On one occasion, her life was put at risk by medical staff, who despite having good intentions, did not know how to properly care for an immunocompromised patient on chemotherapy.

“During my first round of chemo, I ate a twisty, and that caused a tooth infection. I had no white cells to fight it and that is where it went downhill,“ Ms Butler said.

“I was transferred to a hospital near Wondai, and they were very nice, but they gave me a heat pack for my back. At the time I had a temperature, and it wouldn’t go down, and in hindsight, that probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do.”

With her temperature remaining at a critical level for nearly 12 hours, Ms Butler’s oncologist had to call a helicopter to take her to Toowoomba Hospital.

He was also furious to discover she’s unnecessarily been given a catheter, which increased her risk of another infection.

With her temperature peaking at 43 degrees Celsius, the medical staff at Toowoomba were forced to cover her body in ice.

“The care there (near Wondai), it was very nice, but if I’d stayed there I wouldn’t be telling this story to you now.”

A frightening side-effect to her treatment, Ms Butler experienced heart failure. For the sake of convenience, rather than having her to travel to Toowoomba for every step of her treatment, she was transferred to Kingaroy Hospital for her scans.

“I only lasted one day. I feel like I’m really talking the service down, but they treated me like a slab of meat,” she said.

She recalled being left lying on a hospital bed without a shirt, a sheet, or a curtain to protect her privacy, despite there being visiting students just outside the room.

After Ms Butler recounted this story to her cardiologist, he recommended she be transferred back to Toowoomba or the Sunshine Coast.

“He said, you’re not having that, you’re meant to be feeling comfortable,” she said.

In response, a Darling Downs Health spokeswoman said “we understand that when people come to our hospitals and health facilities they are entrusting us with their care, and treating people with dignity and respect is at the heart of what we do.”

“While we can’t comment on individual cases due to patient confidentiality obligations, we ask patients to please let us know as soon as possible if they have any concerns regarding their care, so that we can address these concerns at the earliest opportunity.”

“We see feedback from our patients, visitors and health service consumers as vital in helping us to identify areas that we may need to work on to improve the service we provide.”

With specialists concentrated in urban areas, Ms Butler eventually found herself in the Sunshine Coast, where she had access to oncology, radiation, cardiology, and even psychology all in a single location.

If positivity truly does play a critical role in recovery for cancer patients, the importance of access to specialist care and resources designed specifically for someone going through treatment cannot be understated.

“Feeling vulnerable or dehumanised might cause a person not to come back. I didn’t … but I had an option,” Ms Butler said.

According to a Darling Downs Health spokeswoman, lower cancer survival rates in rural areas are due to a number of factors, including:

  • Later Diagnosis;
  • Lower socio-economic status;
  • Less physical activity;
  • Higher rates of risky alcohol consumption;
  • Higher rates of smoking;
  • Higher proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people;
  • More sun exposure.

As cancer progresses, it becomes more difficult to treat, so early detection gives a person the highest chance of survival. Unfortunately, some cancers are asymptomatic until it’s already spread to other areas, or more wide-ranging symptoms, such as weight changes or fatigue, may be easily brushed off as something less serious.

Ms Butler encourages people to overcome this fear of being labelled a hypochondriac and to seek help if something doesn’t feel right.

For this reason, early detection is critical to improving survival rates and Darling Downs Health encourages anyone is a high risk category to get tested regularly.

A Cancer Council Queensland spokesman said it’s important that everyone “knows their body” and what is “normal” for them.

“If an individual notices anything unusual or out of the norm, they should check with their health professional or GP.”

The Cancer Council are driving toward reducing inequalities in regional Queensland through a number of campaigns and fundraisers, including the national campaign ‘Cancer Screening Saves Lives’, which is targeted to inform the community of the national cancer screening services available and the importance of early detection.

They also launched their own Cancer Risk calculator - a free online tool that can be used to find out ways to reduce your cancer risk.

Not for profit organisations servicing children (0-18 years old) can also apply for a grant under the SunSmart Shade Creation Initiative until November 5, created in partnership with the Queensland Government.

The grant offers organisations the chance to apply for grants of up to $30,000 for a permanent shade structure and up to $2000 for a portable shade structures, to help keep young Aussies sun safe.

The Cancer Council also encourages everyone to reduce their risk of some cancers by living a healthy lifestyle. This includes quitting smoking, eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, being sun-smart, limiting alcohol, and moving your body.

To find out more about how you can do this, visit qld.gov.au/health/conditions/screening/cancer/risk.

If you have a concern or complaint regarding a Darling Downs hospital or health facility, formal complaints can be made through the DDH Consumer Liaison Service by phoning (07) 4616 6152 or emailing consumer_liaison_ddhhs@health.qld.gov.au.

Concerns and complaints are treated fairly and confidentially, and are handled individually with oversight from a division of Darling Downs Health outside of the patient’s treating hospital or health facility.

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