9 September 2022

Can Assist calls for radiotherapy to be delivered at new Eurobodalla Regional Hospital

| Sally Foy
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Bega Valley Can Assist volunteer Peter van Bracht. Photo: Ian Campbell.

Bega Valley Can Assist volunteer Peter van Bracht. Photo: Ian Campbell.

Regional patients diagnosed with cancer are paying at least $30,000 for treatment, according to Can Assist volunteer Peter van Bracht.

He lent his voice this week to calls for the inclusion of local radiotherapy services at the Eurobodalla Regional Hospital under development at Moruya.

Can Assist volunteers are at the coalface of cancer in Eurobodalla and the Bega Valley.

They feel let down and frustrated, by a health system that isn’t supporting local people fighting cancer, and for their life.

Cancer patients that live between Batemans Bay and the Bega Valley travel to Canberra for specialist care and to undergo radiation therapy.

“If you have to have radiation, it goes between six and eight weeks and that’s [not including] weekends off,” the Bega man said.

“That means that you either travel up on a Monday and come back the following Friday. Or, you stay [in Canberra] for the duration of your treatment.”

However, finding accommodation that’s both affordable and available is next to impossible.

There is very limited accommodation available to cancer patients at The Canberra Hospital and at nearby Duffy House.

Duffy House, a 10-minute drive from The Canberra Hospital, was built in 2012 for regional patients and their carers where long distances make it too difficult for them to travel on a daily basis to receive their treatment.

“You have to be very fortunate to secure accommodation,” Mr van Bracht said.

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And without accommodation, he says it’s just not viable for regional patients to travel to Canberra for radiotherapy.

Mr van Bracht says patients are incredibly unwell at this stage of their cancer journey.

“The treatment may only last 10 minutes but you’re not going to travel all the way to Canberra to then feel as sick as a dog and have to come all the way back again,” he said.

“Even if you have someone to drive you, you’re not going to want to do the travel.”

Can Assist does help patients cover travel costs and access community transport but it’s not an ideal solution.

“Again, when you’re feeling crook, community transport doesn’t work,” Mr van Bracht said. “Community transport also doesn’t like to carry [sick people] because they’re ultimately responsible if something goes wrong on the journey, which is understandable.”

For some patients, private travel is an alternative option.

“The cost of fuel to travel backwards and forwards adds up to a heck of a lot of money,” Mr van Bracht said.

For all these reasons a daily commute via private travel or community transport is not a safe or viable solution, according to Mr van Bracht and Can Assist.

However, for isolated patients who are desperate to beat their cancer diagnosis, it’s often the only way.

“Quite often we will pay for patients to use community transport or, if they travel privately, we will cover their petrol costs,” Mr van Bracht said.

The number of people who need to access radiotherapy services at The Canberra Hospital from their homes in the Eurobodalla and Bega Valley varies.

“In the last year there would be at least one dozen who have travelled up [for treatment],” Mr van Bracht said.

Volunteers like Mr van Bracht are there to provide help and assistance to people in situations that are often hopeless.

He has a client who, after her initial consult, dropped out of the system. This Moruya woman is in palliative care and needs Can Assist to support her.

“When I spoke to her, we had made a plan to wait until after she had met with specialists to work out what supports she will need,” Mr van Bracht said.

“We’re not allowed to harass people – that’s an obvious invasion of privacy – so we make an initial contact … and once this is done the patient has to come back to us before we can help them.”

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For too many regional patients, accessing specialists and radiotherapy in Canberra is too difficult.

“Some people can’t afford to go and see a specialist for $200,” Mr van Bracht said. “It’s too hard so they just don’t bother.”

Can Assist volunteers have become increasingly frustrated at the lack of services for regional residents with cancer.

On the issue of radiotherapy services in Batemans Bay, Mr van Bracht said Eurobodalla people should look at the state of services out of Bega’s South East Regional Hospital.

“We’ve got a new hospital and we can’t even get the services here [Bega] that we should be getting,” he said.

“Rather than having specialists [based] here, we’ve got locum doctors dropping in for $3000 per day.”

According to Mr van Bracht, specialists don’t want to operate out of Bega because they aren’t afforded enough theatre time.

“Our orthopaedic surgeons get limited time in Bega so they fill in their time in at Cooma and Canberra,” he said. “People are already travelling from Bega to Canberra for things that are available here.”

He wishes Eurobodalla residents good luck in their fight for local radiotherapy services.

“I can appreciate that they want (radiotherapy services) but we can’t even get them down here.”

A prostate cancer survivor, Mr van Bracht knows from personal experience that cancer treatment can cost thousands of dollars.

“Something as simple as going to Canberra to have an x-ray, which comes well before the MRIs and all the other stuff, can cost up to $600,” he said.

“I paid $30,000 at Macquarie Hospital, and that was without chemo and radiation.”

Patients prepared to wait their turn on a regional hospital list might reduce their costs. However, that cost-saving measure might also cost them their life.

“If you are prepared to wait your turn and have things done locally, when it’s convenient for the hospital and doctors to fit you in, it could be cheaper,” Mr van Bracht said.

“But when it comes to cancer, the longer you wait the worse it gets.”

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