The Crest of the Commonwealth of Australia Treasury Portfolio Ministers
Picture of Wayne Swan

Wayne Swan

Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer

3 December 2007 - 27 June 2013

23 May 2008

NO.014

Prostate Cancer Awareness

Address to the PA Foundation Awareness Luncheon

Brisbane

23 May 2008

Thanks to the PA Foundation for the opportunity to come along today and say a few words for a great cause and for something very close to my own heart – and that's raising awareness about prostate cancer.

Let me start by adding my personal appreciation to the great medical research being supported by the Foundation. I'm told it raises funds for something like 300 research staff from Queensland Health, the University of Queensland, the Queensland University of Technology and Griffith University. And this research has led to outstanding outcomes in the areas of cancer, immunology, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, transplantation, metabolic disorders and spinal injuries.

In particular, I'd like to congratulate Professor Colleen Nelson and her team on their groundbreaking research into prostate cancer biomarkers.

I'm here today near the end of undoubtedly my busiest fortnight as Treasurer. And I've been asked at nearly every single FM radio interview I've done so far, about my experience with prostate cancer. That's a good sign.

I usually tell the story of my mate who I convinced to get tested. Unfortunately, as many of you know, this meant he was up for a DRE – a Digital Rectal Examination. So my mate was sitting there getting increasingly concerned when the doctor started snapping on the rubber glove. But when he saw the doctor start putting on a second rubber glove he began trembling with fear. He mustered up the courage to ask what was going on: "why gloves on both hands?" And the doctor said: "it's just in case you wanted a second opinion!"

Travelling from city to city selling the Budget has meant that in the past five days alone, I have flown 8,000 kilometres, given a dozen interviews, and by the end of tonight, I will have racked up speech number nine. But when the organisers of today's event asked if I could fit another speech in, I didn't think twice. Why? Because I'll always have time for the PA Foundation and the medical research that they support.

And one of the things I'm most proud of in the Budget is what we could do for cancer research.

We announced $15 million for the establishment of two prostate cancer research centres dedicated to developing improved diagnostic tests, screening tools and treatments for prostate cancer. This level of investment in prostate cancer research is a first in Australia. And this is part of a substantial broader program of medical research, and supporting activities, through the National Health and Medical Research Council, funded by the Government to the tune of more than $1 billion.

My Prostate Cancer Story

As a survivor, I know how important this research is.

My prostate cancer story begins with my father, Morrie Swan. He was a wonderful dad – a returned serviceman, who never owned much, but worked hard to bring us up well in Nambour – a sugar town where I went to school where there was also a bright kid named Kevin.

Dad was a World War II veteran. He was pretty stoic. He never liked to talk about his war experiences – I suspect because he didn't want to upset us. The Second World War couldn't kill him, but at age 67, secondary cancers associated with his prostate cancer did.

He'd lived to see his grandchildren born – something all of us with children hope one day we'll see – but not grow up. It was a terribly sad time as you could imagine – especially because he suffered a lot of pain. I was 35 when he passed away, and like most men in my early middle age, I concentrated a lot on building a career.

And I can't recall thinking much about my own vulnerability to prostate cancer until some 12 years later I received a phone call from my own doctor telling me that the symptoms I'd been noticing – the need to go to the toilet more often and a general weariness – were due to the same disease.

I've got to tell you, after what happened to my dad, it was a blow. I was bloody scared. And worried about how to tell my wife Kim and the kids.

The doctor had given me three options.

  • To do nothing. I ruled that out immediately.
  • To have immediate treatment, which entailed some quite radical surgery and some reasonable risks.
  • Or wait a while.

This would have enabled me to get through the 2001 federal election, which was expected to be announced at any time, and which we were a good chance of winning. I would have been Minister for Family and Community Services – a job I'd wanted for a long time.

But after seeing what happened to my dad and weighing up all the risks, I knew what I had to do. I chose surgery.

Now, this was a doubly difficult time, because in the middle of my convalescence the Tampa arrived, full of refugees, taking away the previously high hopes we had of winning that election. And I had to watch the whole tragedy unfold from the couch, as a frustrated observer rather than as someone who may have been able to make a difference.

Lessons

There's a lesson in that that we all must understand: no matter how busy we are, or how important our professional work seems, when it comes to dealing with our health, work simply has to wait.

Because, as we all know, the local cemetery is full of indispensable people.

The thought of a career interruption or having to deal with the side effects of surgery paled into insignificance alongside the possibility of having the cancer spread to my bones, as it did with my father. I'm lucky. I recovered quickly from surgery, and was able to ease back into politics after just five weeks. I'm now back to normal.

And I want to say a few things today about how important it is for men – especially if they're in an at-risk group – to be informed so they can quickly and confidently make the right decision about treatment.

When it comes to prostate cancer, early detection is the best protection. Men have about a one in 10 chance of getting prostate cancer. But if a first degree relative has had it, it becomes a one in three chance. We need to get it early.

And when it comes to getting checked, we can learn a lot from women. Women are far more likely to be screened for breast cancer and cervical cancer. Six in 10 women are checked for these diseases.

But, for example, only 14 per cent of men aged 40-49 were screened for prostate cancer last year. We simply must get those numbers up so we can keep the number of victims down.

If you're looking for a bright side – and I think you have to with a subject like cancer – it's that from the moment you've had to deal with something like prostate cancer, your perspective on things inevitably alters.

I guess I could have given up politics back then at the age of 47, and been regarded as having made the right decision. I certainly considered it.

But for me, confronting my mortality gave my day-to-day life even more purpose and urgency. Being made to realise that none of us are here forever, made me more determined to try to live a more meaningful life and achieve something lasting, no matter how small.

This is something we can all try to do in our own important ways.

Now, of course I'm luckier than most in that my day-to-day activities can reach a lot of people and I have the chance to help. Including, by helping improve our hospital system and funding important research into fields like prostate cancer diagnosis and treatment.

But you don't need to be Treasurer of the country to play a part in the fight against this silent killer.

Every single one of you has made a difference by attending this lunch today, supporting the great work being done by the PA Foundation.

Thank you, and I'm really looking forward to hearing from Colleen Nelson in a moment.