National cancer screening programs reduce the risk of death from breast, cervical and bowel cancer

People with breast, cervical and bowel cancers detected through national cancer screening programs have better cancer survival outcomes than those diagnosed but who had never been screened, a new report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) shows.

The report, Analysis of cancer outcomes and screening behaviour for national cancer screening programs in Australia brings together data on the 3 cancers for which there are national, population-based screening programs―breast, cervical and bowel.

The report examines survival outcomes of people with these cancers to better understand the benefits of screening. It also looks at people’s patterns of screening for cancer, including how receiving the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine affects participation in cervical screening.

Almost 7,000 cases of cervical cancer were diagnosed in Australia in the decade to 2012. About 5% of these cases were diagnosed through cervical screening, with these women having an 87% lower risk of dying from cervical cancer than those who had never had a Pap test.

A similar pattern was seen for bowel and breast cancer. The risk of dying from bowel cancer was 40% lower for people aged 50–69 who were diagnosed through the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program than for those with bowel cancer diagnosed outside the program. About 11% of the almost 31,500 bowel cancers diagnosed during the 2006–2012 study period were diagnosed through the program.

‘For women diagnosed with breast cancer, the risk of death was 42% lower among those diagnosed through BreastScreen Australia than those who had never screened,’ said AIHW spokesperson Mr Justin Harvey

‘About 44% of the almost 73,500 breast cancers diagnosed in 2002–2012 were diagnosed through BreastScreen Australia,’ Mr Harvey said

Mr Harvey noted the aim of population screening programs is to detect disease earlier and improve outcomes for individuals, thereby reducing the overall burden in the community.

The report also looks at Australians’ screening behaviours and shows that women vaccinated against HPV are more likely to participate in cervical screening than unvaccinated women.

‘This suggests that women who are vaccinated against HPV are either more aware of the need to participate in cervical screening, or are more likely to take part in healthy behaviours generally,’ Mr Harvey said.

Women who already participated in one screening program were also more likely to participate in other programs for which they were eligible, suggesting that if barriers to participation in one screening program can be broken, there is potential to improve participation across other programs. This can lead to more cancers detected through screening, which have a lower risk of death, as this study shows.


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