Indigenous women three times more likely to die from lung cancer in Victoria

Less and less Indigenous Australians take up smoking. Source: Ahmed Mansoor EyeEm

Lung cancer accounts for more than one-in-four cancer deaths in Indigenous Victorians.

Victorian women of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background are more than three times as likely to be diagnosed and die of lung cancer as their non-Indigenous counterparts.

New figures released by the Victorian Cancer Registry have overshadowed some success in reducing smoking in Aboriginal youths.

Female deaths on the rise 

There has been an overall surge in female lung cancer deaths as a result of women taking up smoking in the 1970s. But the latest figures show that it is having a particularly damaging impact on the Indigenous population.

Quit Victoria Director Doctor Sarah White told SBS News that lung cancer has now overtaken breast cancer as the leading cause of cancer deaths in women, and Indigenous women factored highly in the statistics. 

"Women who are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander living in Victoria are more than three times as likely to be diagnosed and die from lung cancer as non-Indigenous women. That's a huge difference," she said.

"Aboriginal Victorians tend to smoke more than non-aboriginal Victorians, so we're going to see that difference in mortality as a direct relationship to the difference in smoking rates."

Statistics show thirty-eight per cent of Aboriginal adults in the state smoke every day and lung cancer accounts for one in four cancer deaths among Aboriginal Victorians. That compares with one in five in the non-Indigenous population.

First cancer registry in the world

Cancer Council Victoria chief executive Todd Harper said it is the first cancer registry in the world to release a snapshot of Indigenous communities.

"So it gives us an opportunity to learn a lot about patterns of cancer that are occurring within Indigenous communities and also how we can strengthen our prevention messages. So I think this is the value of having such a timely registry focused on the cancer needs of indigenous people," he said. 

"But it also can be very valuable for other countries and jurisdictions around the world that are also looking at what they can be doing to reduce the impact of cancer in their communities."

Cancer Council Victoria has urged Victoria's Indigenous women who smoke to get help to quit.
Cancer Council Victoria has urged Victoria's Indigenous women who smoke to get help to quit.

Good news story 

Dr Sarah White said there is actually a good news story to tell in curbing tobacco-related deaths in Aboriginal communities.

"The figures nationally show that, in fact, the rates of smoking among Indigenous populations is potentially going down faster than what it is in non-indigenous populations," she said.

"So we are seeing lots of kids really just turning their backs on taking up smoking and even for the elders in the community who are not able to quit, they are actively talking to the young people in the community about not smoking, which is really having an impact. So we're certainly seeing a change, but it needs to happen faster."

Wider health implications

Todd Harper points to the wider health implications.

"We know that tobacco, of course, is the cause of a range of diseases - not only cancer but heart disease as well. So I think it's a timely reminder that we need to do more to encourage Aboriginal Victorians to quit smoking," he said.

"We know that there are very significant benefits from doing that, given the devastating consequences of tobacco. We see that there is a great opportunity to reduce the impact of, particularly, lung cancer but also other cancers and heart disease and stroke as well."

For Indigenous Victorians, there are specific support services to help people give up the habit.

The Cancer Council says the Aboriginal Quit line, on 13 78 48, is the best place to start.

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