First national report shows impact of digestive-tract cancers

Findings highlight the importance of early diagnosis

A first-of-its-kind report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) provides a new understanding of all digestive-tract cancers and their impact in Australia.

The report, Colorectal and other digestive-tract cancers, presents comprehensive data on cancers including colorectal (bowel), pancreatic, stomach, liver and oesophageal.

The report shows that digestive-tract cancers are a major cause of illness and death in Australia, accounting for about 2 in 10 (21%) of all cancers diagnosed and nearly 3 in 10 (28%) cancer deaths. Males are 1.5 times as likely to be diagnosed with a digestive-tract cancer and 1.6 times as likely to die from digestive-tract cancers as females.

‘Bowel cancer is the most commonly diagnosed digestive-tract cancer in Australia, estimated to make up almost 6 in 10 (59%) digestive-tract cancers diagnosed in 2018. It is also the digestive-tract cancer with the highest survival rate, with those diagnosed having a 69% chance of surviving 5 years after their diagnosis,’ said AIHW spokesperson Justin Harvey.

‘This is much higher than the survival rate for some digestive-tract cancers. For example, pancreatic cancer—which is the second most commonly diagnosed type—has the lowest 5-year survival rate of all specified digestive-tract cancers, at about 9%.’

As the result of a collaboration between the AIHW, all state and territory population-based cancer registries and Cancer Australia, national data on stage at diagnosis have been produced for the 5 highest incidence cancers (prostate, breast, bowel and lung cancer and melanoma) for the first time this year.

Today’s report uses these new data to, for the first time, quantify the relationship between cancer stage at diagnosis and survival prospects nationally, which highlights the benefits of early diagnosis.

‘For example, almost half–or 46%—of people diagnosed with bowel cancer were considered to be ‘early stage’ at the time of their diagnosis—that is, at stage I and II,’ Mr Harvey said. At these earlier stages, a cancer may still be contained within the original site, or spread to nearby tissues only. Later stage cancers are those that have spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body.

‘People diagnosed with stage I bowel cancer had a 5-year survival rate of 99%. However, for those diagnosed at the most advanced stage (stage IV), this was just 13%.’

These findings support an AIHW report released last month which showed the positive relationship between taking part in cancer screening programs and survival outcomes. This report showed that people aged 50–69 diagnosed with bowel cancer through participation in the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program had a 40% lower risk of dying from the disease compared with people diagnosed with bowel cancer outside the program. This result is likely due to the earlier stage of the cancers diagnosed through the screening program.

In addition to the benefits of early diagnosis, today’s report also shows that much of the impact on our population (the ‘burden’) of digestive-tract cancers is potentially preventable through behavioral changes.

‘For example, 54% of oesophageal cancer burden was due to tobacco use, while 40% of liver cancer burden was due to alcohol use,’ Mr Harvey said.

‘These findings highlight the potential to improve the incidence and outcomes of digestive-tract cancers in individuals, as well as reducing the impact of these cancers on our community as a whole.’


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