Alarming increase in younger cancer patients seeking support

4 minutes read
Posted 21 May, 2024
Queenstown Relay For Life ambassador Andrea BalonaJ centre rear

Queenstown Relay For Life ambassador Andrea Balona, centre rear

Alarming increases in numbers of cancer patients, and particularly in younger age groups, in the Queenstown Lakes - Central Otago region has cancer community agencies pushing for greater support services.

Society staff are currently working with 140 patients in the region, where community manager Tara Strahan says the number of referrals has doubled to between 20 and 25 a month, compared with twelve last September.

She’s noticed more young families impacted by cancer in this region, Strahan says and it’s “only the tip of the iceberg”.

“While typically patients are in their late 60s and early 70s, they’re now seeing an increase in patients under 50, and even into their 30s,” she says. This means more young families impacted and Strahan says there are also migrant patients with young families needing help. “For some migrants there are financial issues especially if they’re on visas with no family support.”

With younger families, there is a whole new raft of stresses to deal with like helping families arrange childcare and manage school-age children if a parent is undergoing treatment.

Cancer ‘navigators’ are trying to raise awareness about the community services available, so patients seek support earlier.

While the population is growing, anecdotally the number of cancer diagnoses has increased at a faster rate than the population growth rate with numbers predicted to double in 20 years.

While there’s no official breakdown available, those working in cancer support locally are concerned at the rapid increase in younger patients seeking help.

Approximately 80% of patients assisted by the newly opened Queenstown Hospice in Frankton are cancer patients. General Manager Marie Wales says the ages are getting younger and also a big increase in the number of brain tumours in younger men, with one very young female patient at 25. “We look at the whole family and we’ve had a lot of incurable brain tumours which are really impacting families,” Wales says. “Three were young men in their 30s and 40s and recently another two at 40 and 42. They’ve all got children.”

There have also been younger patients being diagnosed with lymphomas. “We seem to have more young people appearing, maybe it’s our younger population and we’re also a melting pot for the whole world.” Wales says a new nurse practitioner from Wellington also noticed the younger age group.

“It is concerning, and we are actively looking for solutions as to how we can respond.”

Southland Hospice sends a clinical specialist to Queenstown who spends two days with patients every fortnight. The local hospice works with Lakes District Hospital on special palliative care if needed.

Wales says they also visit patients in their homes and work on a care plan with their GPs. Day programmes are offered caring for the carers, and also grief and loss support groups.

Southern Cancer Society CEO Nicola Coom says the Society doesn’t have access to diagnosis data, but they’re observing more people under 50 accessing the Society’s support services, in line with global trends.

Access to health services is a priority in this area and they’re looking at how they can bolster local cancer services to help families. “We’re going to be investing a lot more into Central Otago with the changing demographics and so much growth,” Coom says. “We’re needing a stronger presence.”

“We’re discussing with public and private providers how we can ensure we are ready for the next 10 years.”

The Society continues to work with Government agencies and the health sector to find improvements and support initiatives that improve cancer outcomes. “We believe the future lies in early detection, particularly lowering of the screening age for bowel cancer to 45 years of age.”

It’s definitely getting busier with a marked increase in requests for support, in younger and younger clients and with more families affected, the Society’s head of cancer services Craig Watson says. Support is offered covering everything from decision-making and counselling, to accommodation for families during treatment and treatment management.

Private health providers are looking to provide more services closer to home so patients who can be, are treated at Dunstan and Lakes District hospitals. However, Watson says not everybody has private medical insurance so increasingly the Society is asked to help with support, including accommodation while patients are undergoing treatment.

Cancer pilot programme for Queenstown and Central Lakes

A Cancer Society pilot programme being run in Canterbury will be rolled out to Central Lakes in the coming months. The programme is aimed at providing people, particularly in rural communities, with greater access to the Society’s cancer navigation services. “They can book support appointments when, how and where it suits them online, in person, daytime, evenings or weekends,” CEO Nicola Coom says. This portal will also help connect with information and workshops, not only practical, but emotional support. “This is all part of trying to help make navigating the cancer journey a little bit easier.”

Southern Cancer Society CEO Nicola Coom

Southern Cancer Society CEO Nicola Coom

Queenstown Relay For Life ambassador Andrea Balona knows what its all about

Queenstown Relay For Life ambassador Andrea Balona knows what it’s all about


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