Why it's important:
GI cancers (oesophagus, stomach, liver, gall bladder, pancreas, bowel/anal): Australia's most common cancer group - 24,600 new diagnoses a year, 3 every hour
12,000 deaths a year - 33 per day
Low survival rates - average 49%, pancreatic just 6% over five years - compare melanoma, breast, prostate cancers: all around 90%
Recent evidence shows GI cancer research under-funded vs mortality
GI Cancer Institute and AGITG:
Australasian Gastro-Intestinal Trials Group (AGITG): conducts clinical research trials (since 1991) with worldwide collaboration to improve treatments (chemotherapy, radiotherapy, combinations, best practice)
This research saves and extends lives, improves quality of life
GI Cancer Institute: AGITG community division raises trial funding, awareness - of GI cancers, trials, preventive strategies (healthy eating, exercise)
Question: What do you hope to achieve during GI Cancer Awareness Week?
Gail Smith: The event from April 27 to May 3, is hoping to do exactly what it says – raise awareness of gastro-intestinal cancers among the general public. It will be Australia's first-ever national GI Cancer Awareness Week, and will include free public forums in Melbourne and Sydney with scientific experts, survivors and supporters sharing their knowledge and experience. It will also be a rare, but valuable opportunity to ask questions of medical professionals.
GI cancers include cancers of the oesophagus, stomach, liver, gall bladder, pancreas, the bowel and the anus. It is Australia's most common cancer group with 24,600 new diagnoses a year – that's 3 every hour. Survival rates are extremely low – there are 12,000 deaths a year – that's 33 per day. The survival rate averages 49 per cent with pancreatic cancer at just 6 per cent over five years. They are shocking statistics when you consider that the survival rates for melanoma, breast and prostate cancers are all around 90 per cent.
Question: What do you hope Australians learn about GI Cancer?
Gail Smith: I'm hoping that people will begin to think more about these cancers. They have to be talked about and action taken to increase funding into research. These diseases are so common in our society yet by doing simple things such as living a healthy lifestyle, people can minimise their risk.
Question: Will you be attending the upcoming Engage Community Forum on GI Cancer?
Gail Smith: Yes, I'll be attending in Melbourne. The date is April 28 at Hawthorn Arts Centre. The GI Cancer Institute is the community arm of the Australasian Gastro-Intestinal Trials Group (AGITG), which conducts clinical research trials to save and extend lives and improve the quality of life for those suffering from GI cancers. The institute's aims are to raise funding for trials research and awareness education among the public through initiatives such as healthy eating and exercise.
Question: How has GI Cancers affected you and your family?
Gail Smith: My father died in 2005 from pancreatic cancer. He was 73 but was fit, healthy and a non-smoker. Pain in his stomach was dismissed by his GP as irritable bowel syndrome and the cancer was only discovered when he was admitted to A&E a week later. Within four weeks he had passed away. Unfortunately pancreatic cancer is often discovered too late – in my father's case, it had spread to his liver and there were no treatment options left.
In 2012, both my mother and mother-in-law were diagnosed with GI cancers. My mother-in-law had treatment for bowel cancer but sadly died a year later. My mother's tumour was situated in her oesophagus - she had successful surgery in 2013 and is now, thankfully, free of the disease.
Question: Can you talk us through the methods you use to hopefully prevent yourself from GI Cancer?
Gail Smith: I basically try to keep fit and healthy by exercising and watching what I eat. This includes lots of vegetables and fish and just a little meat. I don't smoke and only have the occasional glass of wine or beer. I have a bowel screen test every year, which is easy to do, and I keep informed of developments in GI cancer research.
Question: What advice do you have for women who are supporting family members with GI Cancer?
Gail Smith: Ask for help! My mother, sister and I nursed my father at home with a district nurse visiting each day to administer medication. We took it in turns to have a break, even if it was just for a walk to the shops. It's difficult to do but you have to look after yourself to be able to care for another person facing these devastating illnesses and this means not being too proud to ask for help and support. You don't have to shoulder the burden on your own – there are lots of support services available staffed by people who have a wealth of experience and knowledge about caring for someone with a GI cancer diagnosis.
It's also vital as a carer, to stay abreast of new developments in treatments and clinical trials and to have a close relationship with your medical team to discuss these and any worries or concerns you may have.
Interview by Brooke Hunter