Grievance Debate: Head and Neck Cancer Awareness

Grievance Debate: Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Main Image

Mrs PHILLIPS (Gilmore) (18:22): This month, July, is Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month, and today I want to tell about my own very recent and real journey, about my large oral tumour, which, thankfully, was discovered and surgically removed. We all lead busy lives. But there is never a better time than this month, during Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month, to have a check-up with your dentist and health practitioner.

For me, that started at a general check-up with my local dentist, who found something odd growing from the left-hand side of the roof of my mouth. I did not really understand what that was or could mean, and, I am sad to say, I continued my busy life. However, my dentist persisted and made sure I was booked in locally to see a head and neck specialist that visits Nowra each month. The truth is, I was still in denial. I was fit, healthy, a wife, a mum of four and an MP. But, as I learnt from the head and neck surgeon, I had a large oral tumour in my mouth. I was just stunned.

The reality set in just before Easter 2024. I quietly scolded myself for not knowing what was going on in my own mouth and that it had been growing slowly in my mouth for some time. I was not in physical pain, but every single time I talked my tongue hit the tumour. The tumour was the new roof of my mouth, hidden quietly from public view, just behind my front teeth and my smile; no-one would ever know. The previous radio ads where I'd had trouble pronouncing some simple words, all of a sudden made sense.

Although my family and close friends and colleagues knew, it was not something I could tell people. It was something that I was living with each and every day; it was playing on my mind. I was told that, regardless of whether the tumour was benign or something more sinister, it would need to be removed, and, although my tests were as good as they could be, there was still a chance the tumour was cancerous.

For me, just getting to surgery was a major battle. I thank my staff, who had my back the entire time.

Even going to hospital on the day of surgery, I was anxious to the point of not feeling well. I feared being sent home. But, thankfully, the surgery happened, the tumour was removed and the surgery was a success.

It was when I was getting a dental obturator—which is a specially made, 3D-printed dental prosthesis—fitted, to cover the roof of my mouth while it healed, that I learnt about the amazing technological advances in facial reconstruction following tumour removal for cancer. Our amazing Medicare system of course covers the removal of oral tumours in hospital. But if your tumour removal means cutting into your jaw, nose or face, Medicare does not cover the reconstruction, so you might not be able to do simple and very necessary functions like eating and speaking. If you have breast cancer or prostate cancer, Medicare does cover the cost of a reconstruction, which is great, but, if you have head and neck cancer, Medicare does not cover a reconstruction with technology available. My grievance is: this needs to change.

I was lucky to learn, a week or so later, that my tumour was benign. But it would have turned cancerous if not removed.

The Senate Community Affairs References Committee last month handed down its recommendations on the inquiry into equitable access to diagnosis and treatment for individuals with rare and less common cancers. I particularly note recommendation 14. It recommends:

… that the Australian Government work with state and territory governments to identify the barriers faced by cancer patients requiring rehabilitation, prosthetics and implants as a result of their treatment, with a view to ensuring they have financial support for those services.

I lend my support to that recommendation, because head and neck cancer patients should be able to have access to reconstruction surgery to ensure an adequate quality of life.

I sincerely thank my dentist, surgeon and health practitioners, and all who work in the field of oral and maxillofacial surgery and treatment. Thank you for your dedication to a better way of life for tumour and cancer patients.

This month, I encourage people to have that oral check—have that regular health check. It could just save your life.