Special population groups (formerly Appendix C)

The burden of cancer is not evenly spread across Australia. People experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, culturally diverse communities, people living with a disability, people with chronic mental health or psychiatric concerns and those who live in regional and rural areas of Australia have poorer cancer outcomes.

Cancer is the third leading cause of burden of disease for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. While Australia’s cancer survival rates are among the best in the world, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to experience a different pattern of cancer incidence and significant disparities in cancer outcomes compared with non-Indigenous Australians.

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, health and connection to land, culture, community and identity are intrinsically linked. Health encompasses a whole-of-life view and includes a cyclical concept of life–death–life.

The distinct epidemiology of cancer among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and unique connection to culture, highlight the need for a specific optimal care pathway for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with cancer. Ensuring this pathway is culturally safe and supportive is vital to tackling the disparities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Published in 2018, the Optimal care pathway for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with cancer provides guidance to health practitioners and service planners on optimal care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with cancer across the cancer continuum.

In addition to the key principles underpinning cancer-specific pathways, these are the key concepts that are fundamental to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health:

  • providing a holistic approach to health and wellbeing
  • providing a culturally appropriate and culturally safe service
  • acknowledging the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
  • understanding the social determinants and cultural determinants of health (Cancer Australia 2015).

To view the Optimal care pathway for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with cancer, visit the Cancer Australia website. To view the consumer resources – Checking for cancer and Cancer, visit the Cancer Australia website.

For people from culturally diverse backgrounds in Australia, a cancer diagnosis can come with additional complexities, particularly when English proficiency is poor. In many languages there is not a direct translation of the word ‘cancer’, which can make communicating vital information difficult. Perceptions of cancer and related issues can differ greatly in people from culturally diverse backgrounds and this can affect their understanding and decision making after a cancer diagnosis. In addition to different cultural beliefs, when English language is limited there is potential for miscommunication of important information and advice, which can lead to increased stress and anxiety for patients.

A professionally trained interpreter (not a family member or friend) should be made available when communicating with people with limited English proficiency. Navigation of the Australian healthcare system can pose problems for those with a non-Anglo culture, and members of the treatment teams should pay particular attention to supporting these patients.

The Australian Cancer Survivorship Centre has developed a glossary of more than 700 cancer terms in nine different languages. The multilingual glossary has been designed as a resource for professional translators, interpreters and bilingual health professionals working in the cancer field. The glossary is a unique tool that enables language professionals with access to accurate, consistent and culturally appropriate terminology.

Visit the Peter Mac website to see the glossary.

Disability, which can be physical, intellectual or psychological, may have existed before the cancer diagnosis or may be new in onset (occurring due to the cancer treatment or incidentally). Adjusting to life with a disability adds another challenge to cancer care and survivorship.

Several barriers prevent people with disabilities from accessing timely and effective health care (AIHW 2017):

  • physical limitations
  • competing health needs
  • the trauma of undergoing invasive procedures
  • potential barriers associated with obtaining informed consent
  • failure to provide assistance with communication
  • lack of information
  • discriminatory attitudes among healthcare staff.

In caring for people with disabilities and a cancer diagnosis, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare disability flag should be used at the point of admittance to correctly identify and meet the additional requirements of a person with disability. Facilities should actively consider access requirements, and health practitioners should make reasonable adjustments where required.

Patients aged between seven and 65 years who have a permanent or significant disability may be eligible for support or funding through the National Disability Insurance Scheme (National Disability Insurance Agency 2018). More information can be found on the NDIS website.

Patients aged 65 years or older (50 years or older for Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people) may be eligible for subsidised support and services through aged care services. An application to determine eligibility can be completed online over the phone. More information can be found at the http://www.myagedcare.gov.au.

More information

‘Talking End of Life’ is a resource that shows how to teach people with intellectual disability about end of life. It is designed for disability support workers but is also helpful for others including families, health professionals and educators.

To view the resource, visit the Talking End of Life website.

Planning and delivering appropriate cancer care for older people can present a number of challenges. This could also be true for frail people or those experiencing comorbidities. Effective communication between oncology and geriatrics departments will help facilitate best practice care, which takes into account physiological age, complex comorbidities, risk of adverse events and drug interactions, as well as the implications of cognitive impairment on suitability of treatment and consent (Steer et al. 2009).

At a national interdisciplinary workshop convened by the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia, it was recommended that people over the age of 70 undergo some form of geriatric assessment, in line with international guidelines (COSA 2013; palliAGED 2018). Screening tools can be used to identify those patients in need of a comprehensive geriatric assessment (Decoster et al. 2015). This assessment can be used to help determine life expectancy and treatment tolerance and guide appropriate referral for multidisciplinary intervention that may improve outcomes (Wildiers et al. 2014).

Frailty is not captured through traditional measures of performance status (e.g. ECOG) and includes assessment in the domains of:

  • function
  • comorbidity
  • presence of geriatric syndromes
  • nutrition
  • polypharmacy
  • cognition
  • emotional status
  • social supports.

While there is no accepted definition of ‘young’ regarding breast cancer, younger women have been defined in previous guidelines as women aged 40 or younger at breast cancer diagnosis (Poggio et al. 2018). In 2020, it was estimated that 23 per cent of all new cancer cases diagnosed for Australian women aged 20–39 were for breast cancer (Cancer Australia 2020f). Younger women with breast cancer are likely to face different challenges including:

  • early menopause
  • fertility and sexuality issues
  • role functions including partnering, caring for young children, education and carer issues
  • self-image.

Compared with older women, these concerns may contribute to higher levels of psychological distress following diagnosis.

Pregnancy-associated breast cancer, defined as breast cancer diagnosed during pregnancy or in the year after a pregnancy, accounts for 7 per cent of breast cancers in young women (Ives 2009), which is around 100 women annually in Australia. These women typically have a higher disease stage and more aggressive tumour features at diagnosis. However, when matched by age and disease stage with other breast cancer cases, there appears to be no survival difference, except in women diagnosed in the postpartum period, who have higher mortality and increased distant recurrence even after accounting for these factors.

There is an increased incidence of pre-term delivery for this group and management by a multidisciplinary team experienced in caring for these patients is recommended, with consideration given to the optimal time and type of delivery.

A multidisciplinary team approach is essential in managing this group. Initial investigation of any breast symptom in a pregnant or lactating woman should be the same as any other woman, to avoid diagnostic delays. The treating team should include health professionals involved in the treatment of breast cancer, the care of pregnancy and psychosocial support. The recommended obstetric and cancer management of a woman presenting with gestational breast cancer will depend on the fetal gestation and disease status at diagnosis.

In 2020, the estimated number of men diagnosed with breast cancer in Australia is 167 (Cancer Australia 2019d). While breast cancer is uncommon in males, it is important for men who find changes in their breasts to see their doctor without delay. Given the low number of diagnoses and the identification of breast cancer in the general community as a ‘female disease’, many men who are diagnosed with breast cancer can feel isolated and unsupported. This has the potential to cause significant psychological distress and may lead to anxiety and depression. Those working in the area should be alert to the increased risk for psychological complications, the impact on body image and the potential for isolation. Peer support may be useful to normalise the feeling and side effects of treatment. All resources should be cognisant of not excluding men because this has the potential to further ostracise an already isolated group.

Breast Cancer Network Australia’s ‘My Journey online tool’ has information specifically designed for men. Early referral for breast cancer will assist with some of the stigma associated with breast cancer in men and ensure men can connect with others after diagnosis.

In general, people from lower socioeconomic groups are at greater risk of poor health, have higher rates of illness, disability and death, and live shorter lives than those from higher socioeconomic groups (AIHW 2016). People experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage are less likely to participate in screening programs, more likely to be obese, less likely to exercise and much more likely to smoke, which are all risk factors for cancer. In 2010–2014 age-standardised cancer incidence rates were higher in the lowest socioeconomic areas compared with the highest socioeconomic areas for all cancers combined (Cancer Australia 2019b).

Socioeconomic status and low health literacy are closely correlated. Therefore, effective communication with patients and carers is particularly important given the prevalence of low health literacy in Australia (estimated at 60 per cent of Australian adults) (ACSQHC 2014).

Consideration should be taken for cancer patients experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage to reduce their risk of being underserved for health care.

A diagnosis of cancer may present additional challenges to people who have pre-existing chronic mental health or psychiatric concerns, resulting in exacerbation of their mental health symptoms. This may include heightened anxiety, worsening depression or thoughts of self-harm.

As poor adjustment and coping can affect treatment decisions, people who are known to have a mental health diagnosis need psychosocial assessment in the oncology setting to formulate a plan for ongoing support throughout treatment.

Psychosocial support can assist with challenges in communicating with health professionals, enhance understanding of the treatment journey, ensure capacity for consent to treatment options and improve compliance with treatment requests. A referral for psychosocial support from a health professional to the psycho-oncology team can ensure these patients are provided with targeted interventions or referrals to community-based services that may mitigate problems associated with the impacts of social isolation that frequently accompany chronic mental ill-health.

Many patients with chronic mental health problems may be well known to external service providers. Psycho-oncology health professionals can form meaningful partnerships with existing service providers to optimise patient care throughout treatment and beyond.

Drug use disorders fall within the area of mental health conditions. People who are opiate dependent may have specific and individual requirements regarding pain management and their own preference for type of opiate prescribed or used.

People who identify as sexually or gender diverse may have unique needs following a cancer diagnosis. Sexually or gender diverse identities include (but are not limited to) people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, collectively ‘LGBT’. There is no universally agreed upon initialism to describe this community, with other terms such as queer/questioning (Q), intersex (I), asexual (A) and pansexual (P) often included, as well as a plus symbol (+) indicating inclusivity of other identities not explicitly mentioned.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are relevant across the entire spectrum of cancer care, from prevention to survivorship and end-of-life care. LGBT people are less likely to participate in cancer screening, and some segments of the LGBT community exhibit elevated rates of specific cancer risk factors – for example, higher rates of smoking and alcohol use. Regarding treatment, there may be unique factors relevant to LGBT people that may affect decision making. Additionally, the LGBT population experiences higher rates of anxiety, depression and stressful life circumstances, and may be at risk of inferior psychosocial outcomes following a cancer diagnosis. LGBT people are also more likely to be estranged from their families of origin, and for older people, less likely to have adult children who may provide support and care.

Barriers to care for LGBT people include past negative interactions with healthcare systems, experiences or fear of discrimination and harassment in healthcare settings, assumptions of cisgender/heterosexual identity, lack of recognition or exclusion of same-sex partners from care, and a lack of relevant supportive care and information resources.

To provide safe and appropriate care for LGBT people with cancer, healthcare providers should:

  • display environmental cues to show an inclusive and safe setting for LGBT patients
  • avoid assumptions about the sexual orientation or gender identity of patients and their partners
  • facilitate positive disclosure of sexual orientation or gender identity
  • include same-sex/gender partners and families of choice in care
  • be aware of relevant supportive care and information resources
  • provide non-judgemental, patient-centred care.