Local support critical for bushfire-affected cancer patients

January 2020

One regional volunteer organisation is pulling out all the stops to continue its vital work supporting cancer sufferers in rural New South Wales

Since mid-2019 Australia’s bushfires have devastated an area larger than England, claimed over 20 lives, destroyed around 1,500 homes and wreaked havoc on native wildlife.

This unprecedented national crisis has brought tragedy, financial hardship and agonizing disruption to the lives of thousands of people, many of whom now face several hard months rebuilding their lives.

A helping hand
For the more vulnerable members of our bushfire-affected rural communities, the challenges are even greater. Fortunately, in addition to the heartening show of domestic and international support for Australia’s bushfire-ravaged communities, there are local organisations with ‘boots on the ground’ dedicated to helping those most in need.

One of these is Can Assist, a registered charity and community volunteer network providing financial assistance to residents of country New South Wales who find themselves in financial stress following a cancer diagnosis. With cancer patients outside our urban centres being 17 times more likely to suffer financial stress than city dwellers, Can Assist focuses on rural areas.

Big country, big challenges
Living a long way from treating hospitals means much higher out of pocket expenses for cancer patients. For this reason, helping people with travel and accommodation costs is Can Assist’s biggest category of financial assistance.

The organisation operates from 55 branches across the state, and its geographic footprint has exposed it indirectly and directly to the ravages of the bushfire crisis. However its 3,000 members and broad network of ad hoc volunteers remain active on the ground and continuing to make a meaningful difference.

Can Assist’s New South Wales branch network

Real help where it’s needed most
Cancer patients in bushfire areas face specific problems, according to Jo Young, senior social worker for oncology and cancer care services at Bathurst hospital. “Our patients are fatigued from their chemo treatment, their immune systems are compromised, they are susceptible to infection – they need to be protected from the smoke pollution and extreme heat.”

Some of the ways in which Can Assist has stepped up its services to cater for the effects of the bushfire emergency include:

    • Assistance with taxi fares to help patients in the Southern Highlands circumvent road and rail closures to access treatment.
    • Providing motel accommodation for a lung cancer patient in Bundanoon whose house’s open chimneys were funnelling bush fire pollution inside the dwelling.
    • Working to arrange the purchase and distribution of air purifiers to meet increased demand.
    • Continually phoning round to check on the welfare of clients, particularly those living alone.


In a joint ownership venture with the Cancer Council, Can Assist operates Lilier Lodge, an accommodation facility in Wagga Wagga currently providing alternative accommodation for five evacuees for whom it was unsafe to remain at home. These include a nose cancer patient and his wife from Tumbarumba, and other evacuees from Tumut and Batlow suffering a range of conditions including renal failure, Lymphedema and various heart and breathing problems.

Local generosity funds local support
Apart from a few people at Sydney head office and Lilier Lodge, Can Assist’s staff are volunteers, with all the money it raises locally being spent in those local areas. At 65 years old and counting, the organisation is a key part of regional community life and committed to supporting those in need well into the future.

However, because the vast bulk of its charitable donations (typically $2.5 to $3.5 million a year) come from areas now affected by bushfires, the organisation is now facing the dual challenge of a drop in funding and a spike in expenditure – and, at the time of writing, Australia’s bushfire emergency is far from over.

Learn more about Can Assist’s work supporting cancer patients in rural New South Wales, or make a donation, by visiting https://www.canassist.com.au/donate


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