Why living in the outback means you may have five years less to live

Why living in the outback means you may have five years less to live

Lisa Marie Cornwell was preparing to marry her sweetheart five years ago when she had just three months to live.

A year earlier in 2016, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, but it had spread to her bones and then metastasized to her brain.

“Which unfortunately gave me three months to live as my wedding is four months away,” she said.

While Ms Cornwell, 35, has defied the odds and a grim prognosis, the south-west Queensland woman’s health is still being closely monitored, with a recurring brain tumor currently said to be “mostly stable”.

“There are no facilities out here [in Charleville] to officially diagnose cancer,” said Ms. Cornwell.

“We were in an era where we didn’t have consistent doctors, so there wasn’t a single person to take care of me, and if there was, they would have taken care of it sooner.”

Five years less to live

Life expectancy for Australians has been rising steadily in recent years, but Queenslanders who live in the outback can expect to live five years less than people elsewhere in the state.

Figures released this month by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) show life expectancy at birth for people in outback Queensland is now 76.6 for males and 80.4 for females.

While accessing health services is harder in the outback, that’s where Ms. Cornwell will always be most comfortable.(ABC Western Qld: Melanie Groves)

Nationally, the average life expectancy in Queensland is 80.9 for males and 85.1 for females.

Rural Doctors Association of Queensland (RDAQ) President Matt Masel said the statistics were not unexpected.

“It’s worrying, but maybe not very surprising,” said Dr. mazel

The ABS categorizes Outback Queensland as the area stretching west from the Cape York Peninsula to the border of the Northern Territory, across inland Queensland to the borders of New South Wales and South Australia.

The latest statistics do not include a life expectancy breakdown for First Nations Australians as updated information is due to be released in November 2023.

Difficult access to healthy food, doctors

dr Masel said the RDAQ aims to close the health equity gap between rural and urban Queensland, in part by advocating improved access to health care and support for rural and remote Queenslanders.

“What we do know is that there is more chronic disease among rural people, diabetes, heart disease, lung disease and mental illness,” said Dr. mazel

Fruits and vegetables in the fridge
dr Masel says the high cost of fresh food is a problem for outback people. (ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley)

He said there are two factors contributing to shorter life expectancy in rural areas.

“Access to healthy food is more difficult,” said Dr. mazel

“And there is less access to GPs and regular general medical care, making it more difficult, and sometimes impossible, for rural patients to get the screening to find these chronic diseases and treat them in their early stages.”

Long road to recovery

It has been a long and often painful journey for Ms. Cornwell in the six years since her diagnosis.

Initially, she traveled to Toowoomba every three weeks for a 16-hour round trip to undergo chemotherapy.

“I didn’t want to, but I had to fight for my family,” she said.

Ms Cornwell said she then moved her treatment to Roma, a three-hour drive away, and more recently to her hometown of Charleville.

She now works as a practice coordinator with the Royal Flying Doctor Service, connecting patients in remote areas to specialist services.

“[Chemotherapy in] Toowoomba was the hardest and I still have to go there to get scanned,” she said.

“But treatment has only been granted in Charleville for the past three months.”

The option of going closer to a specialist was never financially viable for Ms. Cornwell.

“It’s not fair,” she said.

“I believe because we’re so far from consistent care that we’d rather endure the symptoms than uproot our lives.

“There’s a special life out here that we choose, that we love, that’s why we’re here.”

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