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Kiwis urged to take responsibility for cancer risks

Last updated 05:00 01/08/2012
 Chris Te'o
UNDER CONTROL: His father died of cancer, so Chris Te'o is determined to control as many of his own risks as possible. He gave up smoking and regularly cycles.

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Kiwis need to be take responsibility for cancer prevention, otherwise there won't be enough money left to treat everyone with the disease, a leading cancer advocate says.

Ballooning healthcare costs, coupled with an ageing and growing population, would leave health services unable to to provide all the medical treatment and technology demanded by patients, Cancer Society chief executive Dalton Kelly said.

"I'm not talking about rationalising services and treatment, rather I'm talking about New Zealanders stepping up to realities and taking responsibility for their own and their family's lifestyles and actions."

Mr Kelly made the comments at an Otago University public lecture in Wellington yesterday.

"I think that New Zealand society, or at least substantial elements of it, are becoming too dependent on the magic money tree that apparently provides funding for the health budget without taking responsibility for their own health."

People should take a greater role in keeping themselves healthy, rather than relying on the Government to "pick up the pieces" caused by their "risky" lifestyles.

"Of course we expect the Government to continue to fund cancer health services, and we can be pretty sure that they will. But I am beginning to think it is time the debate about healthy lifestyles was racked up a few more notches."

Though more Kiwis were getting cancer, the rates of survival were increasing, except for the "awful" pancreatic and lung cancers, he said.

Recent Health Ministry figures show 20,875 cancers were registered in 2009 and 8437 people had cancer recorded as their underlying cause of death in the same year.

Fifty per cent of cancer patients were beating the disease because of medical advances, Mr Kelly said. People were also living longer and demanding better healthcare at a time when the Government's coffers were being squeezed.

"The problem arises when preventable cancers occur through abuse of tobacco, food, over-exposure to the sun, alcohol and lack of exercise. Yet when these abuses rebound and bite us, in general New Zealanders see treatment as a right . . ."

He also questioned what impact the baby-boomer bulge would have on health resources, including waiting lists and treatments.

Professor Tony Blakely, of Otago University's department of public health in Wellington, said many cancers could be prevented by living healthy lifestyles. But law changes needed to accompany greater personal responsibility, he said.

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"By requiring kids to wear hats outside, it becomes the culture of the school and they just do it, but you have to require it first before it becomes the norm."

Achieving the Government's goal of making New Zealand smokefree by 2025 would reduce rates of lung cancer, of which 90 per cent were related to tobacco, Prof Blakely said.

Health Minister Tony Ryall said the increasing burden of cancer was a "significant challenge".

"We have introduced a number of initiatives to help New Zealanders prevent cancer through reducing risk factors. The Government has introduced ABC smoking cessation interventions into public hospitals and primary care, raised tobacco excise tax and removed tobacco displays from retailers."


His father's cancer could not be cured, but Chris Te'o is determined to control as many of his own risks as he can.

When his father died of pancreatic cancer in 2009, it was Mr Te'o's final push to take action. He gave up smoking, assessed his diet and made cycling his regular mode of exercise.

"To lose my father the way I did was heartbreaking. They said there was nothing they could do for my dad. But I'm doing as much as I can do in terms of preventing cancer."

He started increasing his fitness until it became part of his routine - he still cycles between Porirua and work in central Wellington every day.

He was inspired to start an awareness group, USO, to encourage healthy living and combat the high rates of cancer among Pacific people.

In October, he and 11 other men will ride for two weeks, visiting Pacific Island and Maori communities from Cape Reinga to Bluff to raise awareness about living healthy lives. "I'm seeing now there is a real fear among our people of cancer."

Mr Te'o has a wife, two adult children and an extended family, all of whom he encourages to live healthily.

"I've got a responsibility to lead by example, I guess. I'm much better for it.

"Government can only give you so much. If we can do these things that we have control over, then we can really battle the disease this way."


Incidences of cancer continue to rise, but improving your lifestyle can reduce the risk in some cases.

Obesity: Linked to bowel cancers. New Zealand is the world's third fattest nation and more than a quarter of Kiwis are obese.

Alcohol: Breast, bowel and liver cancers have been linked to excess drinking. Studies show one in six Kiwis over age 15 had a potentially hazardous drinking pattern.

Smoking: Tobacco can cause lung, pancreatic, oesophagus, and kidney cancers. About one in five Kiwi adults (21 per cent) smoke but rates are declining.

Sun: Sunburn can lead to melanoma and other fatal skin cancers. About 2200 people are diagnosed with melanoma every year, the highest rate in the world and climbing. More than 300 people die from it a year.

- The Dominion Post

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