While breast cancer is still the biggest cause of cancer death in Australian women, death rates continue to fall due to early detection and better treatment, says a report released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).
The BreastScreen Australia Monitoring Report 2001-2002 shows that the age-standardised mortality rate for women in the screening target age group (50-69 years) has fallen from 68 per 100,000 in 1993, shortly after national screening started, to 57 per 100,000 women in 2002.
Dr Chris Stevenson of the AIHW's Health Registers and Cancer Monitoring Unit says earlier detection and treatment have contributed to the decline, due in large part to the high participation by women in the BreastScreen Australia Program.
'A total of just over 1.6 million women participated in BreastScreen Australia screening in 2001-02. Of these women, 1.1 million (68%) were in the screening program target age group of 50-69 years, which represents a rise in age-adjusted participation of five percentage points since 1996, when national data were first compiled,' says Dr Stevenson.
As a consequence, there has been a subsequent increase in new cases of breast cancer detected among this age group, from 270 new cancers per 100,000 women in 1996 to 305 per 100,000 women in 2001.
But, says Dr Stevenson, detection of early stage smaller cancers coupled with the significant advances in treatment has meant fewer women are dying as a consequence.
'In 2002, 64% of women with a screen-detected breast cancer in the target age group were women with early stage small cancers rather than the potentially more dangerous later-stage larger cancers.
'More significantly, women who had previously been screened had a higher proportion of small rather than larger invasive cancers detected than women who had not been screened before (66% compared with 54%). This shows that ongoing screening is key to the program.'
It's not all good news, however, with some areas of concern still apparent.
'Participation rates for Indigenous women and women from a non-English-speaking background in the target age group were 35% and 47% respectively. This was significantly lower than the national rate of 57%,' Dr Stevenson said.