Cancer’s ups and downs

In Australia, cases of cancer have tripled since the early 1980s but survival rates are improving.

According to the ‘Cancer in Australia 2019’ report released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), the number of new cancer cases will rise from 47,500 in 1982 to 145,000 in 2019.

“This increasing trend is primarily due to rises in the number of cases of prostate cancer, breast cancer, bowel cancer and melanoma, and is partly explained by the ageing, and increasing size, of the population,” AIHW spokesman Justin Harvey said.

However, while the number of new cancer cases is up, the report shows that five-year survival rates from all cancers combined had improved from 50 per cent in the period 1986-1990 to 69 per cent in 2011-2015.

“Changes in survival rates over time varied by cancer type, with the largest survival improvements seen in prostate cancer, kidney cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and multiple myeloma,” Mr Harvey said.

Over the same period (1986-1990 to 2011-2015), survival rates for patients with cancer of the larynx, lip cancer, mesothelioma, brain cancer and cancer of other digestive organs showed no significant change. The report also found that survival rates for those suffering from bladder cancer had decreased.

For the first time, national data is available on the stage at which cancer was diagnosed for the five most common cancers in 2011 (prostate, breast, bowel and lung cancer and melanoma). This was made possible through collaboration between the AIHW, all state and territory population-based cancer registries and Cancer Australia.

Analysis of this new data found that five-year survival rates were higher for cancers diagnosed at earlier stages (stages 1 and 2). Bowel cancers, breast cancers, melanomas, and prostate cancers diagnosed in 2011 all had close to 100 per cent five-year relative survival when diagnosed at stage 1.

At stage 4, these survival rates were 36 per cent for prostate cancer, 32 per cent for breast cancer, 26 per cent for melanoma and 13 per cent for bowel cancer. While lung cancer had comparatively low five-year survival at stage 1 (68 per cent), it was significantly higher than the three per cent five-year relative survival rate for lung cancer diagnosed at stage 4.

While survival rates continue to improve, the report shows that cancer remains a major cause of death in Australia.

“When we consider all types of cancer together, we see that they are responsible for more deaths than any other group of diseases, accounting for three in every 10 deaths in 2016,” Mr Harvey said.

Lung cancer is expected to be the leading cause of cancer death in 2019, followed by colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, breast cancer and pancreatic cancer.

The report also looked at how cancer outcomes differ across population groups.

For all cancers combined, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples experienced lower five-year survival rates than non-indigenous Australians. A similar pattern was seen for people living in very remote areas, with lower five-year survival rates and higher death rates recorded in these areas.

Mr Harvey noted that while death and survival rates varied among different groups, people diagnosed with cancer in Australia generally have positive outcomes when considered in an international context.

“The data suggests Australia has among the world’s best cancer survival rates, with a relatively low ratio of deaths to the number of cases diagnosed in the Australia/New Zealand region,” he said.

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