North cancer rate highest in country

Trust your instincts. Melanie Waldron never thought she would be diagnosed with breast cancer at 36 years of age. But when she found a lump in her breast, she knew something was desperately wrong.

The Whangarei mother-of-two was referred by her doctor to a breast clinic just to be sure. About four weeks later, Ms Waldron was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"When I felt [the lump] I knew it was cancer. That's why I say, trust your instincts. I just knew - and I know so many people who say the same thing," she said.

The latest Ministry of Health statistics for 2010-12 show with 144.5 deaths per 100,000 people Northland has the highest mortality rate for cancer. The region also has the highest death rate for breast cancer with 22.2 deaths per 100,000 people. Ms Waldron is one of the survivors.


When Ms Waldron, 41, was diagnosed she was told she would have to wait four to six weeks for surgery. Health insurance meant she was able to have private surgery to remove the lump in Auckland within five days of her diagnosis.

"My lump doubled in size in two weeks," she said. "I think if I hadn't had medical insurance it could have been a different story. It could've spread because it was really aggressive."

After six months of chemotherapy and two months of radiation, she discovered she carried the BRCA1 gene mutation, which meant an increased risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer.

Because of the risk, her breasts and ovaries were removed which involved seven operations, including breast reconstruction surgery which finished in May last year.

"I was really sick for a whole year, my children were 8 and 9 years old, it was a pretty awful and scary time. My younger daughter thinks I was in hospital for years, and asks me every year not to have any surgery around her birthday.

"On the flip side, it's been amazing the support I have had from my friends, family and partner (now husband) and I have met so many amazing people that I now call my friends. But at the time I felt so alone."

Andrew Potts, Northland DHB general manager of surgical, pathology and ambulatory services, said Northland's high cancer mortality rate may be attributed to the region's high Maori population.

There was also a higher incidence of cancer with Maori women, and their mortality rate was significantly higher.

Northland DHB had steadily increased its breast-screening rates, exceeding the national target of 70 per cent for Maori, by reaching 73 per cent of the Maori population and 74.6 per cent of the non-Maori population. But a population increase noted in the 2013 Census meant coverage of the screening was reduced to 66.4 per cent.

In May, it will be five years since Ms Waldron was diagnosed with cancer. She now chairs the Breast Cancer Support Northland Trust.

"I finally feel that I am back into the real world and have just started a career in real estate. However, the worry never goes - as much as you try, every headache or backache gives you a moment of worry that your cancer has spread."

There were amazing medical professionals in Whangarei, and Ms Waldron said the breast clinic and the new oncology unit were "wonderful". Whangarei needed more breast surgeons and plastic surgeons to keep up with the work load, though.

"We all have to travel to Auckland for radiation [and surgery] and are sometimes away from our families for months."