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Health Minister Rona Ambrose speaks about Canadian efforts on the Ebola outbreak Monday October 20, 2014 in Ottawa. Pamela Fralick, the cancer society’s president, says there has been a “declining priority given to health issues generally in Ottawa over the past decade.”

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Canadian Cancer Society is delivering a blunt indictment of the federal Conservative government's record on cancer care, saying a lack of strong national leadership on the prevention and treatment of the disease is threatening Canada's health-care system.

For the first time in its 77-year history, Canada's largest health charity, is making a public pitch to political parties before a federal election, calling for commitments to cancer care and research to be written into campaign platforms and pointing to gaps it says have been created by "Ottawa's broader disengagement from health issues."

In a report to be released on Tuesday, the cancer society says cases of the disease, led by surges in prostate and colorectal cancer, are expected to climb by 40 per cent over the next 15 years as a result of the aging population.

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"Without a strong national response," the report says, "there is a risk that the rising number of cancer cases will overwhelm our health care system, compromising the quality of care available and crowding out the investments required to better prevent and treat the disease tomorrow."

Pamela Fralick, the cancer society's president, said in a telephone interview on Monday that the fixed federal election date of Oct. 19 has given her organization the unprecedented chance to feed into the political debate. "We want there to be a dialogue on health and we want there to be a dialogue on cancer," Ms. Fralick said, "because cancer is the No. 1 cause of death, and a lot of it is preventable."

The report says the government has taken some important steps to reduce the incidence of cancer, but those actions have been undermined by contradictions and missed opportunities. "This is a symptom of the declining priority given to health issues generally in Ottawa over the past decade," it says.

The cancer society is calling on federal parties to commit to three measures it says would reduce the incidence of cancer or help patients who are diagnosed with the disease. It wants tobacco to be sold in plain packaging and a better national strategy for tobacco control. It also wants a guarantee of affordable, high-quality palliative care for all Canadians, and commitments to long-term health research.

While the Conservative government raised tobacco taxes by $700-million a year and enhanced warnings on cigarette packages, it also cut funding for tobacco control by 40 per cent, the report says. While it stopped opposing international efforts to designate asbestos officially as a hazardous substance, it has not improved the domestic strategy for reducing exposure to it. And, while it extended the period for which people can be off work to care for a sick loved one from six weeks to six months, the cancer society says the government has made no broader commitment to home and palliative care for cancer patients.

"It's a patchwork quilt in terms of service provision across the country," Ms. Fralick said.

The health portfolio has never been a priority for the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has noted that, under the Constitution, health care is a provincial and territorial responsibility. While his government transfers billions of health dollars annually to the other jurisdictions, it has largely avoided taking part in its delivery.

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But Ms. Fralick said people smoke in all parts of the country and, even though the rate is going down, too many Canadians are still dying of tobacco-related cancer. "They deserve equal access to the policies, which will help them stop smoking or protect them from smoke."

Likewise, she said, people living in larger municipalities may have access to excellent palliative care, "but I can assure you that that is not the case across the country."

The cancer society report says Canada needs federal leaders to revive the national health debate if the country is to meet the growing cancer challenge. "Our next government," it says, "must be prepared to take strong sustained action to stop more cancers before they start and repair dangerous holes in our publicly funded health system."

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