Cancer screening proves its worth

Cancer screening proves its worth

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Cancer Australia chief executive Helen Zorbas said the higher proportion of early stage breast and bowel cancer in the over-50s shows the success of early screening programs. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

Cancer Australia chief executive Helen Zorbas said the higher proportion of early stage breast and bowel cancer in the over-50s shows the success of early screening programs. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

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OVER 50? Don't chuck out that bowel cancer screening kit you got in the post, or forget your free breast screening check-up.

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OVER 50? Don't chuck out that bowel cancer screening kit you got in the post, or forget your free breast screening check-up.

If you're over 50, doctors are more likely to catch bowel and breast cancer at the all-important early stages, according to new data from Cancer Australia.

And experts attribute this higher proportion of early detection in patients over 50 to screening programs such as the national bowel screening program and free breast screening check-ups.

For the first, time cancer experts have been able to compare the stage at which the top five most common cancers (breast, melanoma, prostate, lung and colon) are detected and break this into age groups.

The figures show while bowel and breast cancer is being detected early among people over 50 (compared to under-50s), melanoma and prostate cancer is being picked up at a later stage in that age group.

Cancer Australia chief executive Helen Zorba said the data shows a higher proportion of early stage breast and bowel cancers in the over-50s age group "which most likely reflects the earlier detection due to screening and increased community awareness of symptoms".

"As the phased implementation of the bowel cancer screening continues to 2020, and as we encourage higher participation in the program, we would hope to see the proportion of early stage cancers continue to increase in the future," Dr Zorba said.

While people over 50 are more likely to be diagnosed with bowel cancer at an early stage, the picture is not so rosy across the board.

In fact, figures across all age groups show fewer than half of bowel cancer patients are picked up early.

The research shows while three of the most five common cancers diagnosed in Australia - breast, melanoma and prostate - are caught early, lung and colorectal cancer patients are more likely to be diagnosed in the later stages of the disease.

Looking at all age groups, the landmark study shows less than half (46 per cent) of bowel cancer and just 18 per cent of lung cancer cases were diagnosed at an early stage (stage 1 or 2) in 2011.

This compares with just over three-quarters (77 per cent) for breast cancer, 82 per cent for prostate cancer and 92 per cent of melanomas diagnosed at an early stage.

Dr Zorba said the data has opened the door to insights that could inform and shape our approach to cancer control strategies.

"The landmark data reveals the extent and spread of these cancers at diagnosis across four stages of severity - with stage 1 being localised disease and stage 4 being metastatic or more widely spread disease," she said.

"The data will help us explore the relationship between cancer at stage diagnosis and survival outcomes, and the role of public health initiatives, early detection and awareness campaigns."

The figures also show a higher proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were diagnosed with advanced cancer than non-Indigenous Australians.

In Australia, one person is diagnosed with cancer every four minutes, with an estimated 138,000 new cases this year.

The top five cancers contribute about six out of 10 of these cases.

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