ACT News

Brain cancer the biggest disease killer of kids

Brain cancer kills more children than any other disease but nine out of 10 Australians are completely unaware of the frightening statistic, with low awareness and funding being blamed for static survival rates over the past three decades.

Research from the Cure Brain Cancer Foundation, founded by prominent neurosurgeon Charlie Teo, reveals Australians are three times more likely to believe leukaemia kills the most children, when in fact 90 per cent of children diagnosed with it now survive five years.

Each year, the equivalent of a classroom of children lose their lives to brain cancer, with about 30 children dying per year on average. 

Associate Professor Teo said brain cancer was "absolutely deadly", killing more Australians under 40 than any other cancer and costing more per patient than any other cancer. 

Just 20 per cent of people survive brain cancer while survival rates for the most fatal form of brain cancer, glioblastoma, sit at just  5 per cent. 

"It has been ranked number one, both here and in America and other countries in Europe, as the cancer that has the greatest impact on society. That sounds weird given it's a rare cancer but it is because it's such a terrible, devastating cancer that it has such a huge impact," he said. 

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Professor Teo said investment into researching other cancers had led to improvements in survival rates, such as breast cancer where five-year survival rates rose 17 per cent in the past three decades.

But there had been "virtually no progress" in improving brain cancer survival rates, he said. 

"It's all very clear - it receives virtually no funding. It receives the least amount of funding of all the cancers," he said. 

"The question as to why that is very pertinent because basically people don't know the statistics."

Professor Teo's push for greater awareness and funding comes on the back of a new television advertising campaign launched this week. 

"The point we're trying to make with this campaign is that yes, it's a rare cancer and we don't resent all the other cancers getting their funding... but we want an amount of funding that's commensurate with the impact that brain cancer has on our children and on our society," he said. 

Canberra mother-of-two Sarah Mamalai has a personal reason for wanting to raise awareness about brain cancer.  

The 40-year-old was told she had just three to 18 months to live after she was diagnosed in 2007 with an extremely aggressive brain tumour known as a grade 5 glioblastoma. 

A year after her diagnosis, Ms Mamalai trekked Kokoda, raising $50,000 for brain cancer and after three of her friends died from brain cancer, she organised Brainstorm for a Cure, raising another $111,000.

She is acutely aware of the need for more awareness  about brain cancer, saying she was yet to meet anyone not shocked by the statistics. 

Despite the alarming statistics,  Professor Teo said just  3 per cent of National Health and Medical Research Council government cancer research funding went towards brain cancer, limiting the possibility of finding a cure. 

A Health Department spokeswoman said NHMRC did not allocate specific amounts of funding towards specific disease types or areas, except in very specific circumstances. 

"The overwhelming majority of funding is investigator initiated, and so the area of research is determined by the applicant team, not the NHMRC," she said. 

She said the number of applications NHMRC received for research on specific diseases or conditions affected how much funding could potentially be allocated to the research. There were 79 applications for research into brain cancer last year, compared with 195 for breast cancer and 108 for leukaemia. 

Grant applications were assessed on factors such as scientific merit, potential impact and research track record, she said. 

Professor Teo spoke positively of the federal government's commitment to a Medical Research Future Fund. 

But he had admitted it might be a while before funding filtered down to research organisations, which was why private donations were so important.