In 1980 Bruce Stafford, at age 30, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma (lymphatic cancer), the first thing he asked his doctor was, 'What are my chances?' Today, with 1 in 3 Australian men and 1 in 4 Australian women affected by a cancer diagnosis by the time they reach the age of 75, 'What are my chances?' is a too often asked question.
But what if we had the power to change current statistics? Committed research into cancer has the potential to unlock the many riddles of cancer and remove the fear and trepidation that comes with a diagnosis. Relentless research may even hold the promise to one day make all cancers no more serious than an everyday ailment that has the capacity to be prevented or at least easily treated. In the Bruce Stafford Cancer Research Laboratory at the FECRI scientists are working towards better understanding cancers and how to better treat it.
In the future let us hope we never need ask, 'What are my chances?'
In 1980, Bruce's oncologist told him, 'If you are going to get cancer, Hodgkin's is one of the better ones. Research has taught us a lot about this cancer and we have good treatments available. Your chances are better than 50%.'
Bruce was young and in great shape then. A keen sportsman, he played Hampden League football under greats, Peter Lyons, Mick Mulligan and John Gould. He was a first rate Country Week cricketer too. He also ran our sheep property in Western Victoria and was doting Dad to 1 year-old, first born, Timothy. It was inconceivable to think Bruce─of all people─might be diagnosed with life-threatening cancer.
Hodgkin's Lymphoma has a long history. It's one of the first cancers in which various treatments were investigated with high levels of success. By 1980 research had developed chemotherapy and radiation regimes that gave sufferers of Hodgkin's a fairly good chance of living a long healthy life ─ cancer free. Although powerful chemotherapy drugs and radiation took a debilitating toll on Bruce's quality of life during treatment (that at times left us wondering would he ever make it through) the end result was a positive one: the news of his remission arriving on the same day our daughter Caissie celebrated her first birthday in 1981. It was the outcomes of research that gave Bruce treatment options that combined with a healthy diet and change of lifestyle helped him to live his life free from Hodgkin's for over 23 years.
Today, Hodgkin's Lymphoma sufferers have an even better chanceof a complete recovery than when Bruce was diagnosed 25 years ago. Research since 1980 has unlocked more of the riddles of Hodgkin's resulting in better treatment regimes and an even better chance of a cure. Today, the number of victims who succumb to Hodgkin's Lymphoma has fallen more than 60% since the early 1970s.
In July 2003, Professor Kannourakis delivered us the news that Bruce had malignant Mesothelioma (an incurable asbestos related cancer with minimal treatment options). Predictably, Bruce asked, 'What are my chances.'
His chances were not good.
Chances of beating Mesothelioma today are challenging. One of the most serious of all the asbestos related diseases, Mesothelioma is a fatal form of cancer usually with a long period between asbestos exposure and diagnosis. On the upside, some people live for five to ten years after diagnosis. On the downside, most will succumb to this cancer within a very short time of diagnosis.
Unaware of the dangers of angle grinding what looked like ordinary cement sheet (that would later be scientifically assessed as James Hardie cement sheet containing asbestos) an innocent farming activity undertaken by Bruce in 1977 became a potentially lethal one for him, 28 years after the event.
A recent report indicates that the number of deaths each year due to Mesothelioma in Australia set at 1,848 in 2001 will increase until it reaches its peak between the years of 2011 and 2015. The peak is expected to see between 1,950 and 2,450 deaths per year. To be counted among these statistics was not what Bruce and I had planned for in our future. To say we were numb with shock and disbelief hardly describes the transition between our lives that in one moment was whole and then suddenly shattered.
So far, Mesothelioma research has been minimal.
Attempts to find a possible cure for Bruce's Mesothelioma or at least find ways for Bruce to live well with this cancer took us to Shanghai where Bruce underwent 'eastern' cancer treatment. We also traveled to Long Beach California, USA. There, Bruce's cancer was grown in culture and tested for sensitivities. The results of this cutting-edge cancer science to determine best treatments or best combination treatments for Bruce's unique disease resulted in us gathering valuable information specific to Bruce's responses to Mesothelioma. Sadly this information came too late in the journey of Bruce's cancer.
No one is special in the eyes of cancer. Anyone, at any age, in any position in life is vulnerable to cancer. In fact, around 345 000 Australians are diagnosed with cancer each year and around 34 000 will die.
Cancer remains one of the big health riddles of our time. The only sure thing about this disease is the question it raises for those who will be given a cancer diagnosis. Nearly all will ask, 'What are my chances?'
The good news is that anyone who wants to see better treatment options and better outcomes for cancer sufferers can do something to make a difference by supporting cancer research at the Fiona Elsey Cancer Research Institute. The three-year trial currently underway in Bruce's Laboratory at FECRI is incredibly exciting.
As the Board commences the task to cement and grow the Institute's cancer research activities in new streams of cancer research, the Board will be looking for donor heroes to help it achieve its goals. Already, the generosity of the Ballarat and wider community means there is now a well resourced world-class cancer research facility in regional Victoria. It is operated by a dedicated research team who are well poised to undertake internationally competitive cancer research.
Cancer research facilities like the one at Ballarat are not Government funded. It's not until the Institute produces a large body of research and gains recognition for its research that it can then apply for substantial grants. Therefore, it will be crucial over the next few years not to lose the Institute's accumulated research and current scientific expertise. Significant funding support is urgently required to secure the Institute's ongoing development and future successes.and how it can help save lives. This was especially true for Bruce with Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
I encourage everyone to become life-long supporters of our Fiona Elsey Cancer Research Institute. I long for the day when cancer research means that a cancer diagnosis no longer intrudes and disturbs the joy and laughter of life for so many families affected by a cancer diagnosis. My family knows the benefits of successful cancer research and how it can help save lives. This was especially true for Bruce with Hodgkin's Lymphoma. However, our family also knows the chills and heartaches that arrive when you are handed a cancer diagnosis only to be told there are currently no cures and barely are there any treatments available.
One day research will give everyone diagnosed with cancer a reason to hope for the brightest future.