The Australian Government’s $63 million commitment to radiation therapy for regional Australians.

Cancer and COVID-19 – Frequently Asked Questions

What is the risk to me from COVID-19 if I have cancer?

Cancer treatment can lower your immune system, making you less able to effectively fight a virus. If you have cancer and you start showing any of the symptoms of COVID-19, it’s important to speak with your doctor. A complete (and regularly updated) list of symptoms is available here. Symptoms include:

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Breathlessness
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Loss of smell.

If you have any of the listed symptoms, contact your GP. You can also contact the National Coronavirus Helpline on 1800 020 080.

Should I delay treatment for my cancer to reduce the risk of COVID-19?
It’s important to continue to focus on optimal treatment for your cancer. Your doctors will establish the right treatment plan for you, but it is still possible to receive cancer treatment successfully during this time. Your cancer treatment may well require a combination of multiple treatment modalities, but your team of doctors will continually assess your health to determine the best course of action.
What impact will radiation therapy have on my immune system?
Many cancer treatments can cause temporary suppression of your immune system, but the impact of radiation therapy is usually less than chemotherapy. There are still risks to your immune system, so you may not be as capable of fighting illness as when you are well. Radiation therapy can be an effective treatment for many cancers, and it can be an outpatient treatment helping you to avoid as many hospital visits, so this might be a safer option for you.
What precautions should I be taking to prevent contracting and/or spreading COVID-19?

To protect yourself from COVID-19 you should follow Government advice, which includes:

Good hygiene

  • Wash your hands regularly
  • Use alcohol-based sanitisers
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth
  • Clean and disinfect frequently used surfaces
  • Clean and disinfect frequently used objects, like mobile phones, keys, wallets and work passes

Social distancing

  • Stay at home and only go out if essential
  • Keep at least 1.5 metres away from others
  • Avoid physical greetings like handshakes, hugs or kisses
  • Travel at quiet times and avoid crowds
  • Avoid public gatherings

Download the COVIDSafe app

  • You can download the COVIDSafe app to track whether you’ve come into contact with any people who have COVID-19, which will allow you to take precautions and follow up with your doctor as soon as possible

Ask your family or the people you live with to take extra care

  • It is advised that family or cohabitants of people with cancer take care to avoid public places and social contact to minimise the possibility of spreading COVID-19.
Is it safe for me to visit a hospital or treatment centre if I have cancer?
Treatment centres have strict guidelines in place to reduce transmission. If you would prefer, you may be able to utilise telehealth – online, video call consultations – rather than going into the clinic or hospital. Some doctors will recommend this unless they need to see you in person as part of your treatment. The risk is still relatively low in Australian clinics and hospitals, but if you are concerned speak to your doctor and they will be able to work out the most appropriate way to help you.
Who should I contact if I have any concerns or questions during my cancer treatment?
You should contact your radiation oncologist or clinician.
If I contract COVID-19, what will happen about my cancer treatment?
If you contract COVID-19, your doctors will determine the best course of action for your treatment. Different cases will require different responses.

Thanks to advocacy led by RTAG, the Australian government has allocated $63 million to build radiation therapy treatment centres in 13 locations across regional Australia.

RTAG welcomes politicians’ timely recognition of the value of radiation therapy in treating cancer and the importance of ensuring regional patients have reasonable access to treatment they need. In light of the funding announcement, it is more important than ever that RTAG continues to educate and inform the public on the benefits of radiation therapy as a treatment for many types of cancer.

What is radiation therapy?

Radiation Therapy is the delivery of focussed, high-energy radiation from X-rays, gamma rays, protons, neutrons or other sources in the treatment of cancer.

It is extremely safe, clinically precise, and reduces damage to healthy cells. It does not make the patient radioactive or cause lasting damage to healthy cells.

Radiation therapy damages cancer cells by destroying tumor DNA. Cancerous cells are more susceptible to radiation than healthy, non-cancerous cells.

Radiation therapy is a safe, effective, non-invasive and cost-effective treatment for many types of cancer.

The treatment can be delivered outside the body (external beam radiation therapy) or from within or close to the body (brachytherapy).

Radiation therapy is painless, and similar to having an X-ray or CT scan and any potential side-effects are always discussed with the prescribing Radiation Oncologist prior to treatment.

It can be used to cure cancer alone or in conjunction with other treatments, and it can also be used to ease pain during palliative care. It provides relief from pain and other symptoms.

Unfortunately, radiation therapy is underused in Australia. This is especially true for regional cancer patients, due not only to the long distances required for travel, but also due to a basic lack of understanding and information about the benefits of this treatment modality among regional populations.

THE PROBLEM

In Australia radiation therapy is underused in the fight against cancer.

A key barrier to radiation therapy is not cost or treatment effectiveness.

It’s lack of access.

Distance from a treatment centre is one of the biggest contributors to this problem.

Only 1 in 3 Australian cancer patients today receive radiation therapy

That number should be 1 in 2, in line with clinical evidence and guidelines

Each of these 13 population centres is more than an hour away from the nearest radiation therapy centre. Many are further away.

Studies show that people with cancer in regional areas are up to 35% more likely to die within 5 years of diagnosis than patients in the city. For many regional Australians, the distance is too far for regular trips. Many are not even told radiation therapy is an option for them. Those who receive radiation therapy have to face long drives and many nights away from home.

An independent New South Wales medical study found that the underutilisation of radiation therapy for breast cancer patients led to the deaths of 85 patients over a three-year period.

R Merie, J Shafiq, G Gabriel, M Barton, G Delaney, Comparing Evidence-based recommendations for radiotherapy use against routine practice in breast cancer

What a lack of radiation therapy means for patients:

Lower survival rates

Avoidable surgeries

Long distance travel

Weeks away from home

THE SOLUTION

In 2019, the Australian Government announced $63 million to build radiation therapy treatment centres in 13 locations across regional Australia. 

This is a significant win for regional communities, cancer patients and medical professionals. In the future, cancer patients for whom radiation therapy was out of reach will have local access to a safe and highly effective cancer treatment.

While planning and development of the centres is underway, it is important that our doctors, health professionals and patient advocates work together to raise awareness of radiation therapy’s benefits and make sure our referral pathways reflect best clinical practice.

RTAG will keep the community up to date as works progress. Check out the NEWS and RESEARCH section for more information, and subscribe to the RTAG E-Newsletter below for bi-monthly updates on the centres and other radiation therapy research and developments. 

Help us spread the word about radiation therapy and ensure more Australians receive treatment.

 

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Authorised by A/Prof. Peter O’Brien, Radiation Therapy Advisory Group,
c/o Level 12, 54 Miller Street, North Sydney, NSW.