Regarded as one of the leading cancer services in regional Australia, the Albury Wodonga Regional Cancer Centre (AWRCC) is a purpose-built centre which unites a suite of cancer services under one roof.
The AWRCC was established in 2016 as a public/private partnership between Albury Wodonga Health (AWH) and a number of private cancer services, and has provided world-class cancer care to the region.
Offering diagnosis, support, education, research and treatment services, the AWRCC has made a tangible difference to the lives of thousands of cancer patients and their families.
“With over 20,000 people accessing the facility in the past 12 months alone, it’s hard to believe that the region hasn’t always had access to this best practice cancer care,” remarked AWH’s Board of Directors Chairman, Matt Burke OAM.
Prior to the AWRCC’s establishment, there was emerging evidence of a growing disparity between cancer survival in metro and regional populations.
“Evidence showed that there was a gap between cancer outcomes in regional and metropolitan patients. Due to a lack of access to facilities and Oncologists, regional patients were more likely to die of common cancers compared to their city cousins,” AWH’s Director of Cancer Services, Dr Craig Underhill, explained.
Those living with cancer in regional Australia often had to travel long distances to access chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment, or travel to multiple different locations in one day for treatment.
“A fairly typical day for a patient used to be travelling to West Albury for a blood test for rapid processing, Wodonga for an appointment with a medical oncologist, Albury Base Hospital for chemotherapy and then back to Wodonga for radiotherapy,” explained Dr Underhill.
The inconvenience and cost of travelling between sites was enormous
“For those already facing stress and hardship – this was a big ask.”
Somebody who knows the burden of travel for cancer care is Michelle Hensel, Chairperson of the AWRCC Trust Fund and breast cancer survivor who sadly lost her Father and son to cancer.
“When my son was diagnosed, we had to move to Melbourne for 12-months to access treatment. This was an enormous personal, financial and emotional challenge,” Michelle said.
“When you have cancer your whole world is turned upside down. What makes a real difference is the little things, like being close to your family, watching your sporting team, patting your dog … not being able to do these small things really adds to the burden of a patients’ cancer experience.”
“After my son passed away, I watched the Cancer Centre being built and it was quite an emotional journey because I wished my son had access to these facilities.”
Having just marked its 5th anniversary, the AWRCC is now a staple of the community and has helped relieve many burdens previously faced by cancer patients.
“The AWRCC has grown to a centre of excellence for cancer treatment, patient care and research,” said Matt Burke OAM.
“From wellness programs that improve quality of life, to cutting-edge technology that saves lives, the Centre offers local access to services and modalities previously only available in metropolitan areas.”
“From a consumer point of view it means less need to travel to Sydney and Melbourne and better co-ordinated care of services.”
Thanks to the AWRCC Trust Fund, almost $2.5 million has been invested in new equipment, staff education and training, cancer research and the Wellness Centre.
New breast reconstruction equipment in August 2020 signalled the beginning of reconstructive surgery on the Border, and was expected to save at least 38 women a year from having to make multiple trips to Melbourne after having a mastectomy.
Local access to an eBUS endoscope used to detect lung cancers, not only spares patients from the need to travel, but also provides an earlier diagnosis and increased chances of survival.
Supporting cancer care from a holistic perspective, The Wellness Centre programs include counselling sessions, oncology exercise classes, massage, mindfulness and support groups.
These are just a few of the examples of how increased access to support services and to equipment has helped provide quality care to local patients and families, and improve cancer outcomes.
“In general, cancer care has improved enormously. It is now more seamless, more support services are available, treatments have improved, and we can better manage side-effects,” Dr Underhill said.
“The Cancer Centre has helped save lives, and I don’t think we should underestimate the hope and expectation this centre symbolises for many people.”
“Proper investment in health services in our region provides a critical basis for people wanting to live in the region, and helps drive other investments across the economy.”
“The Cancer Centre is just the start - we need equity in access and better facilities for all health services in regional Australia, not just cancer.”