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BCNA News 25 Jul 2017

Australians with metastatic breast cancer in favour of assisted dying

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in Australian women and kills over 3,000 women nationally each year.

While survival rates have greatly improved over recent decades as a result of investments into medical research, unfortunately around 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 day-to-day challenges of living with an incurable illness that requires lifelong treatment.

Currently this issue is on the agenda of New South Wales and Victorian governments. The New South Wales parliament is considering a Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill with cross party support. In Victoria, last Friday, the Ministerial Advisory Panel on Voluntary Assisted Dying released a report and set of recommendations ahead of draft legislation.  BCNA attended the briefing on the report provided by Professor Brian Owler.

There is no doubt that 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 suffering pain and distress. The important qualification to make here is that we are talking about people who are in a position to 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) own research. Over 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 has been living with metastatic cancer the more supportive they are of assisted dying, with 96 per cent of women who have 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.  We want to ensure everyone who needs specialist palliative care services can access them when they need them.

BCNA does not have a formal position on assisted dying, however, it is important that we reflect the voice of all those living with a breast cancer diagnosis.  It is important that everyone with an interest in end of life, which ultimately is all of us, understands the issues at stake and has a chance to contribute to the current debate.