The increasing trend to 2008 was largely due to a rise in the number of diagnosed prostate cancers in males and breast cancer in females. This trend may have been the result of increased prostate-specific antigen testing, the introduction of national cancer screening programs, and improvements in technologies and techniques used to identify and diagnose cancer.
Registration of all cancers, excluding basal and squamous cell carcinomas of the skin, is required by law in each state and territory. Information on newly diagnosed cancers is collected by each state and territory population-based cancer registry and provided to the AIHW annually to form the Australian Cancer Database (ACD). Since basal and squamous cell carcinomas of the skin are not notifiable in all jurisdictions, data on these cancers are not included in the ACD. However, it is estimated that basal and squamous cell carcinomas of the skin are the most frequently diagnosed cancers in Australia. For more information about estimates of these cancers, see Cancer in Australia 2021. Also note these cancers are included in the treatment and impact sections of this page.
Australia’s ageing population and cancer
The Australian population is ageing, and the risk of being diagnosed with cancer increases with age. With more Australians living to older ages, the number of cancer cases diagnosed each year continues to rise. The Australian population is expected to increase by 15% (about 4 million people) between 2021 and 2031 (ABS 2018), while cancer cases are estimated to increase by around 22%.
It is estimated that around 185,000 cases of cancer will be diagnosed in 2031, and that between 2022 and 2031, a total of around 1.7 million cases of cancer will be diagnosed.
In the period 2012–2016, the age-standardised incidence rate for all cancers combined was highest for those living in the 2 lowest socioeconomic areas and lowest for those living in the 2 highest socioeconomic areas.
Age-standardised incidence rates tend to increase with increasing disadvantage for the following cancers:
- colorectal cancer (from 52 in the least disadvantaged areas to 61 cases per 100,000 people in the most disadvantaged areas)
- lung cancer (from 31 to 55 cases per 100,000 people)
- head and neck cancer (including lip) (from 14 to 21 cases per 100,000 people)
- kidney cancer (from 11 to 15 cases per 100,000 people)
- pancreatic cancer (from 11 to 13 cases per 100,000 people)
- cancer of unknown primary site (from 7.2 to 11 cases per 100,000 people)
- liver cancer (from 5.9 to 9.4 cases per 100,000 people)
- cervical cancer (from 5.9 to 8.8 cases per 100,000 females)
- uterine cancer (from 17 cases to 20 per 100,000 females).
In contrast, the age-standardised incidence rates tended to decrease with increasing disadvantage for the following cancers:
- breast cancer (from 138 in the least disadvantaged areas to 117 cases per 100,000 females in the most disadvantaged areas)
- prostate cancer (from 169 to 137 cases per 100,000 males).
Compared with people living in the least socioeconomically disadvantaged areas, cancer incidence rates for people living in the most disadvantaged areas were 5% higher, but 5-year observed survival rates were around 12 percentage points lower (56% compared to 68%), and cancer mortality rates were over 40% higher.
See Cancer in Australia 2021 for more information.
In the period 2012–2016, an average of 1,665 cases of cancer were diagnosed among Indigenous Australian per year (in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and Northern Territory). The age-standardised incidence rate for all cancers combined was 14% higher for Indigenous Australians than non-Indigenous Australians.
For the 2012–2016 period:
- Prostate cancer was the most common cancer diagnosis in Indigenous males (on average, 141 cases per year).
- Breast cancer was the most common cancer diagnosis in Indigenous females (on average, 205 cases per year).
- Lung cancer was the most common cancer diagnosis for Indigenous Australians overall and the second most common cancer diagnosis for each sex (on average, 125 cases per year for males and 119 cases per year for females).
Stage at diagnosis
Cancer stage at diagnosis refers to the extent or spread of cancer at the time of diagnosis. The AIHW, Cancer Australia and state and territory cancer registries worked together to undertake a pilot to produce national population-level data on cancer stage at diagnosis for the 5 most commonly diagnosed cancers (breast, prostate, colorectal and lung cancers and melanoma of the skin) diagnosed in 2011. These cancers were assigned a ‘stage’ from I to IV. The higher the number, the further the cancer had spread at the time of diagnosis. The 2011 pilot data remain the most recent available.
Collection and analysis of data on cancer stage at diagnosis enhances the understanding of the variation in cancer stage at the time of diagnosis and how it affects survival.
- Most cancers were diagnosed at stage I or II (66%), with melanoma of the skin having the highest percentage diagnosed at stage I (78%).
- 12% of cases diagnosed with one of the 5 most commonly diagnosed cancers presented with a stage IV cancer.
- Stage IV cancer accounted for 42% of lung cancers diagnosed, which was the highest percentage of the 5 cancers.
While population-based cancer screening in Australia focuses on asymptomatic populations for breast, cervical and bowel cancers, treatments for cancer aim to improve outcomes for individuals once they have received a cancer diagnosis, irrespective of the cancer type. Summaries of some key areas of cancer treatment (hospitalisations, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and palliative care) are presented below.
In the 2019–20 financial year, there were around 1.3 million cancer-related hospitalisations, accounting for about 1 in 9 of all hospitalisations in Australia. Of these:
- 74% were same-day hospitalisations (see Glossary). The large number of same-day hospitalisations is in part accounted for by the number of chemotherapy treatments.
- 26% were overnight hospitalisations (see Glossary), with an average length of stay of 7.5 days. Cancer of other central nervous system had the longest average length of stay (13.8 days), followed by leukaemia (12.6) and mouth cancer (11.5).
- non-melanoma skin cancer was the most common cancer recorded as a principal diagnosis (25%), followed by prostate cancer (9.2%) and cancer of secondary site (9.1%).
Chemotherapy involves the use of drugs (chemicals) to prevent or treat disease (in this case, cancer). Chemotherapy can be used on its own or in combination with other methods of treatment.
In 2020, 68,942 people received MBS-subsidised chemotherapy services. 46% of these services were provided to males.
Further information on chemotherapy treatments that were not subsidised through the MBS is available within Cancer in Australia 2021.
Radiotherapy is the use of X-rays to destroy or injure cancer cells so they cannot multiply and is an important part of cancer treatment (Barton et al. 2014). Radiotherapy can be used on its own or in combination with other treatment methods.
In 2020, around 77,200 people received more than 2.5 million MBS-subsidised radiotherapy services. Of these:
- patients had, on average, 33 radiotherapy services (34 for males and 31 for females)
- the Australian Government contributed, on average, $8,016 per patient ($8,476 for males and $7,514 for females)
- around 90% of patients were over the age of 50.
Further information on radiotherapy treatments which are not subsidised through the MBS is available within Cancer in Australia 2021.
Palliative care – sometimes referred to as ‘hospice care’, ‘end-of-life care’ and ‘specialist palliative care’ – is an approach that aims to improve the quality of life of patients and their families facing the problems associated with life-limiting illness. This is done through the prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification and assessment and treatment of pain and other problems, physical, psychosocial and spiritual (WHO 2002).
In 2019–20, around 43,400 cancer-related hospitalisations in Australia involved palliative care – these accounted for 50% of all palliative care hospitalisations.
The most common type of cancer recorded for palliative care hospitalisation was secondary site cancer (20%), followed by lung cancer (13%) and colorectal (bowel) cancer (6.6%). Of the cancer related hospitalisations involving palliative care, 52% ended in death, 13% were transferred to another facility, and 30% were discharged to where the person usually lived.
See Cancer in Australia 2021 for more detail on cancer-related treatments.
Information on survival from cancer indicates cancer prognosis and the effectiveness of treatment available. Relative survival refers to the probability of being alive for a given amount of time after diagnosis compared to the general population (see Glossary). A 5-year relative survival figure of 100% means that the cancer has no impact on people’s chance of still being alive 5 years after diagnosis, whereas a figure of 50% means that the cancer has halved that chance.
During 2014–2018 in Australia:
- Individuals diagnosed with cancer had, on average, a lower (70%) chance of surviving for at least 5 years after diagnosis compared with their counterparts in the general population (referred to as ‘5-year relative survival’).
- Females had a slightly higher 5-year relative survival rate (72%) than males (69%).
- Survival rates vary considerably between cancer types – cancers such as testicular, thyroid and prostate cancer have 5-year survival rates over 95% while cancers such as pancreatic cancer and mesothelioma have 5-year survival rates of less than 20%.
- 5-year survival rates increased from 5 in 10 (52%) in 1989–1993 to 7 in 10 (70%) in 2014–2018.
Survival by stage of diagnosis
The stage of cancer at diagnosis and subsequent treatment outcomes are important determinants of cancer survival. Five-year relative survival rates were highest for cancers diagnosed at earlier stages.
For the 5 cancers where stage at diagnosis data was collected in 2011, 5-year relative survival for:
- Breast cancer in females at Stage I was 100%; at Stage IV it was 32%.
- Colorectal cancer at Stage I was 99%; at Stage IV it was 13%.
- Lung cancer at Stage I was 68%; at Stage IV it was 3.2%.
- Melanoma of the skin at Stage I was 99%; at Stage IV it was 26%.
- Prostate cancer in males at Stage 1 was 100%; at Stage IV it was 36%.
Even though cancer survival rates have increased and cancer mortality rates continue to drop, cancer accounts for around 3 of every 10 deaths in Australia. It is estimated that, in 2022, around 50,000 people will have died from cancer, an average of around 137 deaths every day. Males are estimated to account for 56% of these deaths.
The age-standardised cancer mortality rate is estimated to have decreased from 209 deaths per 100,000 people in 1982 to 145 deaths per 100,000 people in 2022 (Figure 2). See Life expectancy and causes of death.