When I was 17 I was diagnosed with leukemia, a deadly blood cancer.
This blog is a story of my journey through it all and shows how I've managed to stay happy and healthy to this day.
I'm also a medical student - so I hope my experiences from both sides of the doctor patient relationship can inspire you to be the best person you can be.
Be sure to subscribe via email and share this to help others!
My Submission For the 2014 Cancer Council Essay Competition.
"You're a little young to be in here aren't ya, son?"
"Aren't we all?" The man slouching in the chair opposite me
chuckled, adjusting the tubes attached to his forearm.
"What did you have?"
"Multiple Myeloma," he said, struggling to turn in his chair as the
pump's alarm went off. "Had a few goes of chemotherapy, and it's going to
"That's great news! Congrats!" I exclaimed. I could only hope
to be in his position.
But the next thing he said shocked me.
"Yeah, I've lived long enough. I'm ready to move on."
I was diagnosed with leukemia at 17. After being diagnosed, I was in
shock... miserable and depressed. I'd been told I had a 10% chance of living to
But, after a while, I saw a second way of looking at things. I saw my
youth as a blessing. It meant that I could get the hardest, most effective
treatment possible and survive, possibly even thrive after it. I didn't have
heart disease or kidney issues or a family to have to look after - I would have
the best chances possible for the disease I had.
I was ready, willing, almost looking forward to start chemotherapy by
the time my central line was put in.
So his words, only weeks after starting chemo, really got to me... I
mean why would someone just give up, especially after they'd gone through
so much already?
Today, it doesn't surprise me as much. I've overheard my doctors ask other, older patients, with similar diseases, at similar, sometimes better stages than mine, if they'd considered not continuing treatment. And I get why too. Cancer treatment is horrible. And after 3 year of it, featuring I can't remember how many bags of chemo, 2 stem cell transplants and
a near-fatal dose of radiation, I know what it's like to be tired. So tired
that death wouldn't be that scary... it'd be almost welcome. It
would DEFINITELY be easier than living.
That's me at 20. I can barely imagine going through that at 70.
Young people, like me, do get cancer, and they get it in large numbers too. But cancer is still a diseases of the elderly. In 2009, 73.5% of all male, and 63.6% of all women in Australia
diagnosed with cancer were over the age of 60 . For a variety of reasons, increased exposure to carcinogens and weaker immune systems being the major ones, cancer incidence increases
exponentially with age, and this can be seen in the graph below.
Incidence of Cancers in the UK by Age
As seen above, cancer incidence increases almost exponentially with age
in developed countries[2-5]
A challenge faced by many developed countries, including Australia, is
an ageing population, due to low fertility rates combined with increased life
expectancy. Australia's fertility rate lies at around 1.88 , and is projected
to stay below the replacement fertility rate of 2.1 , and the life
expectancy of all developed countries, has historically, and is expected to
continue to rise over time too. Australian men are expected to live 5.5 years
longer, and women 4 years by 2060 , and 1/3 babies born in developed
countries today are expected to make it to 100 years of age .
The impact of a longer life expectancy and lowered fertility rate is
clear in the skewing of Australia's population demographics over time .
Considering this trend of an ageing population, and the fact that cancer incidence increases greatly with
age, cancer is bound to become more prevalent than it already is. Indeed, Australia is on the brink of a
cancer epidemic. 128,000 new cases of cancer were detected in 2013, and that
number is set to increase to 150,000 by 2020. Overall, that's a 40% increase since 2007 . That number
stands to rise even more by 2060 when more people will be above 50 years of age
than under. With peak incidence of cancer striking between 65 and 80 years of
age for men, and plateauing at 60 for women, an ageing population is the major
factor in the increase in cancer prevalence.
Proportion of the Australian Population aged 65 or older.
The proportion of Australians over 65 years of age is set to increase
and increase at a steady rate. With 1/2 men, and 1/3 women expected to get
cancer by 85  and with about 2/3 of people with cancer
developing it beyond 65 cancer rates are only bound to rise too.
Cancer cost Australia $4.5billion in direct healthcare expenditure in
the 2008-09 financial year , and that number only stands to rise
as cancer becomes more prevalent. The impact on productivity is even greater.
Cancer treatment is a long process, that often leaves many unable to work. In
terms of productivity, 551,300 healthy years of life (measured in DALYs) were
lost to cancer in 2012  and the average cost of cancer per person, including loss in
productivity, lies at $966,000 per person , totalling a staggering $83.4billion
of lost productivity for all patients with cancer in 2005, over their lifetime .
Making sure we're ready for the cancer epidemic is critical to keeping
its already high economic and social burden of healthcare from increasing even
further. And It's imperative that Australia acts early in tailoring
infrastructure, policies and education to mitigate its impacts.
Catching and treating cancer in the early stages, through effective,
accessible screening protocols, quicker diagnosis and the use of preventative,
early phase treatment options not only leads to better treatment and quality of
life outcomes for patients, but is also more cost effective than treating
cancer at later stages and hence should be prioritised in future policies.
With 43% of cancers in developed countries being caused by correctable
lifestyle choices , focusing on reducing incidence of preventable cancers will also help
reduce the burden of cancer.
But though prevention and early treatment is the best way to mitigate
the burden of cancer, elderly patients
in particular are not always able or willing to progress with treatment and are
the highest users of palliative care facilities . Therefore improving access and
quality of palliative care, and grief councelling facilities should also be a
Education about these issues at the undergraduate level is the most
effective way of ensuring that Australia's health professionals are ready for
the cancer epidemic to come.
In most cancers, early detection is correlated with better prognoses and
better quality of life post treatment.
Bowel Cancer 5 year survival statistics based on classification:
Stage A cancers, those which haven't penetrated through the inside of
the bowels have a very high 5 year survival rate, while Stage C and D cancers,
which have spread to the lymph nodes or all around the body have low 5year
Because symptoms of many cancers are non-specific and present in later
stages of diseases, as many as 1/2 bowel cancers and 1/3 breast cancers present
in later stages .
Screening is often the only effective way of catching cancers early on,
when they are more easily curable. Biennial Fetal Occult Blood Tests (FOBT)
which detect bowel cancers with minimal invasiveness, has been proven in
multiple randomised controlled trials, each comprising of at least 48,000
subjects, to reduce mortality rates by 15 - 21% [16 - 19]. One Minnesota
study found annual tests reduced mortality by a staggering 33% , all because
cancers were detected earlier, in their more curable stages.
The BreastScreen Australia program Evaluation Report found that breast
cancer mortality had decreased by 21-28% in all breast cancers  since its
implementation, and regular cancer screening for colorectal cancer has been
shown reduce deaths by as much as 60% .
Screening services for cancer costs our government $332million a year, but despite the
high cost in both the setting up of facilities and utilisation of them, the offset price in direct treatment alone recovers for it. That's not even considering the wider implications of having a healthier, work-fit, more productive population.
Treatment at early stages is almost always cheaper, and more effective than
managing late-stage-cancer. For example, resecting precancerous polyps costs
$2,000 and has a 70% greater chance of success compared to $66,000 a year to
treat advanced bowel cancer .
Per member per month (pmpm) cost paid by insurance companies for later
stage, invasive cancers showing the benefit of treating diseases early, before
hospitalisation and more interventional medicines and procedures make it less
likely to succeed and more expensive too 
Health economists agree that the intervention plus screening costs
involved are effective if they cost less than $50,000 per year of life saved
(pyols) . Colorectal cancer screening, mammograms in women over 65, and 3 yearly
pap smears have been shown to fall well below that figure, the former costing $11,592 and $36,843 respectively and the latter only
costing $5,392 pyols . These life years saved pay off economically through increasing the
workforce and consumption.
Insurance companies in other developed countries have proven the cost
effectiveness of covering screening tests too. Investing $2.95pmpm yields up to
$3.75 in savings. Also, those with cancer claimed on average $2,390per member per year, versus $360
for those without cancer. Thus insurance companies investing in screening is definitely
economically viable for the companies, as it would save on having to pay out those increased claims,
and will enhance the governments efforts in getting Australia screened.
For screening tests to be effective in reducing the rising burden of
cancer, tests need to be cheap, accurate, affordable and targeted to the right
Currently, due to an insufficient workforce and lack of access to
screening facilities, Australia's compliance with the BreastScreen program has
plateaued at 56% compared to America's compliance rate of 81.2% .
Policies, such as Australia's National Bowel Cancer Screening Program
(NBCSP) need to target the correct populations too. Currently, 61% of bowel
cancers occur in those aged 70 and older , but no-one over 65 is included in
the current program. Only 15million dollars a year, on top of $37million
already put in is required to provide screening to 75 years of age , probably because
facilities to act on early detection tests aren't adequate. When looking at the
costs of later intervention however, it becomes clear this is most likely worth
it, and should be rolled out as soon as possible.
Mammograms in women in the 40 - 49 age group have been proven to not
decrease mortality over time  due to denser breasts in younger
populations. Thus there are limitations to current screening technologies that
practitioners should be aware of.
Issues of equality in access to screening and treatment is of import
too, especially in Indigenous and rural settings. Indigenous Australians still
face a huge gap in cancer mortality and screening rates, and are also less
willing to accept treatment . They have a 1.3x greater mortality
rate due to cancer, are 3-3.9x more likely to develop preventable cancers (such
as lung and liver cancer), and only have a 36% rate of compliance with breast
cancer screening programs due to a cultural, socio-economic, distance and awareness reasons. Mortality rates increase
with increasing remoteness in rural Australia  due to problems in accessing care
and screening facilities.
Scotland's Detect Cancer Early Program attacks the issue of an
increasing burden of cancer by working on a variety of aspects concerning
screening and prevention of cancer.
The program focuses on raising public awareness, ensuring diagnostic and
imaging departments are well equipped for the increasing rates of screening and
early treatment and working with GPs to promote referral for investigation at
earlier opportunities and in raising data too, which "constitutes a
priority for early diagnosis initiatives and research" . In its first year
there was a 4.3% increase in people being diagnosed at stage 1 for the 3
cancers targeted, showing it to be an effective strategy.
Australia needs to model its future policies regarding this issue in a
similar, all-encompassing manner to reduce the burden of cancer.
As stated above, 43% of cancers can be linked to lifestyle choices, and
these usually manifest due to decades of bad health habits. Reducing these not
only reduces the burden of cancer, but also that of other diseases too.
Preventable, Lifestyle Choices that directly cause cancer. 
A huge proportion of disease is directly attributed to tobacco use.
Hence policies and tobacco cessation rehabilitation measures proven to work,
such as tax increases and anti-smoking media campaigns , to where they're
needed, in areas like Northern Queensland with a very high 38% age-adjusted
smoking male Indigenous population  will be greatly beneficial. The same applies
for providing HPV vaccines in Indigenous women. Poor diet and alcohol
consumption also leads to increased likelihood of cancer, and needs to be
addressed through better patient education.
The increasing use of multidisciplinary teams to manage patients before
hospitalisation, along with databases like the E-Health Record, will hopefully
mean these lifestyle choices can be better managed and tracked over time by
GPs. TeleHealth and other long distance medical services are also looking to
provide better access to good health and treatment to rural and remote
Palliative care encompasses a
holistic approach to end of life care, and hence encompasses a broad variety of
roles in healthcare, from hospital, hospice or nursing home care, to grief
counseling to radiological intervention to reduce pain.
World Health Organisation outline of the role of
palliative care.  Below is its aims.
Palliative care needs to be up-scaled and optimised to cope with the
increase in cancer prevalence at older ages. 54,446 patients accessed
palliative care in 2013, 88% of whom were 55 years or older  and 77% of whom had cancer . That number had increased by 56% over a 10 year
period, as the prevalence of elderly patients with cancer, those most likely to
seek palliative care, will increase. Hospital facilities provided 653,000 days
of care to cancer patients at the end of life between 1998 and 2008, in addition to the $3.5million/year in subsidies
for prescription medications to ease symptoms at the end of life .
But palliative care isn't just
restricted to hospital settings. Community and GP management of palliative care
isn't being monitored at present, making it hard to determine what services
exist and what needs to be improved. However, this is set to change soon with
an NDMS (National Data Minimal Set) been deemed to be feasible .
To cope with the increased
seeking of palliative care, primary care physicians should be trained to
deliver and manage palliative care in a multidisciplinary team setting.
Currently, 56% of GPs feel that they
should be responsible for palliative care , but many doubt their ability to
fulfill the role due to lack of training  and don't seek further training
for workload, cost of course and loss of time reasons. Thus additional
training within GP specialisation and at an undergraduate level would make
palliative care more accessible in the future.
Specialists in palliative care
currently make up 0.38%  of all health specialists, with only 92, servicing
108 registered palliative care services; this already indicated a shortage but
is more concerning when considering that many more services exist without being
registered or providing data. More training and education of this already
shorthanded field is required.
Though Australia is ranked 2nd
in the world in the Quality of Death Index, we are ranked 19th in terms of
providing access to a basic end of life healthcare environment  indicating
both a lack of specialisation and lack of access by rural communities. Again,
TeleHealth is promising in delivering care to rural communities and this, along
with the Personally Controlled E-Health Record will make palliative care more
accessible to rural populations .
Cancer is already a prevalent
disease in Australia. 339,077 people were diagnosed with cancer from 2007 -
2012 alone . With our ageing population, this figure is set to
rise in the following years.
accessible screening protocols nation-wide, advocating healthy lifestyle habits
and improving palliative care access and facilities is vital to ensure
Australia can deal with the increased cancer burden due to an ageing
population, and education of future doctors and health professionals is a
The Cancer Council's Ideal
Oncology Curriculummandates that awareness of the public health
factors, including epidemiology, screening and the impact of cancer on
psychosocial health is as important as the learning of cancer biology and
treatment. They are our future GPs and specialists and they should be aware of
these trends, and on how to deal with them.
Education on the benefits and
limitations of screening technologies, on the economic and health benefits of
catching cancer early, methods and the importance of reducing cancer risk
factors and the accessing and importance of palliative care are all best learnt
at the medical student level.
Hence, ensuring that our next
generation of doctors are aware of the trends and impacts of cancer, and
ensuring more are trained in this field is crucial to ensuring the burden of
disease remains low.
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