Cancer is a large range of diseases in which some of the body’s cells become defective, begin to multiply out of control, can invade and damage the area around them, and can also spread to other parts of the body to cause further damage.

There are more than 1 million people alive in Australia who have previously been diagnosed with cancer. During 1989–1993, 5 in 10 (52%) people survived for at least 5 years after their cancer diagnosis; by 2014–2018 survival had increased to 7 in 10 (70%) people surviving at least 5 years.

Impact of COVID-19

The full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on cancer diagnosis and treatment will not be known for several years. However, COVID-19 restrictions appear to have affected the uptake of breast ultrasound, mammography, breast magnetic resonance imaging and colonoscopy.

After having increased by an average of 1% per year over the previous 20 years, the rate of cancer-related hospitalisations decreased by 1% between 2018–19 and 2019–20, noting that COVID-19 restrictions were in place during the last quarter of 2019–20. Following average growth of around 2% per annum between 2014 and 2019, the number of people having Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS)-subsidised colonoscopies was 12% lower in 2020, and 3% lower in 2021, when compared with 2019.

Cancer incidence and mortality projections methods for 2021 used in the following paragraphs do not factor in possible COVID-19 impacts.

How common is cancer?

In 2022, it is estimated that:

  • About 162,000 new cases of cancer were diagnosed in Australia, an average of over 440 every day; more than half (55%) of these cases were diagnosed in males.
  • The most commonly diagnosed cancers in males were prostate cancer (24,217 cases), melanoma of the skin (10,374 cases), colorectal cancer (8,300 cases) and lung cancer (7,707 cases).
  • The most commonly diagnosed cancers in females were breast cancer (20,428 cases), colorectal cancer (7,413 cases), melanoma of the skin (7,382 cases) and lung cancer (6,822 cases).

The age-standardised incidence rate (see Glossary) of all cancers combined rose from 383 cases per 100,000 people in 1982 to a peak of 508 cases per 100,000 in 2008, to 504 cases per 100,000 in 2018. Age-standardised rates are estimated to have remained similar at 507 cases per 100,000 people in 2022 (Figure 1).
 

The figure shows that the number of cancer cases between 1982 and 2022 has been steadily increasing from 47,414 cases in 1982 to an estimated 162,163 cases in 2022. Age-standardised incidence rates were 383 cases per 100,000 persons in 1982 and peaked at 508 cases per 100,000 persons in 2008 and are estimated to remain relatively stable in 2022 with 507 cases per 100,000 persons.

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.

Cancer registrations

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.

Socio-economic factors

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.

Indigenous Australians

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.

In 2011:

  • 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.

Cancer treatment

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.

Cancer-related hospitalisations

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

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

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

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.

Survival

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%.

Impact

Deaths

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 Causes of death.
 

The figure shows that the number of deaths from cancer between 1982 and 2022 increased from 24,915 deaths in 1982 to an estimated 49,996 deaths in 2022. Age-standardised mortality rates were 209 deaths per 100,000 people in 1982 and were relatively stable until 1994 when mortality rates began to decrease; mortality rates are estimated to have continued falling to 145 deaths per 100,000 persons in 2022.

Burden of disease

Burden of disease analysis measures the impact of disease and injury in a population by estimating the ‘disability-adjusted life years’ (DALY) experienced by the population. This measure counts the combined years of healthy life lost due to living with disease and injury (non-fatal burden), and dying prematurely (fatal burden).

In 2018, cancer contributed to 18% of the total disease burden, which was more than any other disease group. Dying from cancer accounted for 34% of the fatal burden in Australia. See Burden of disease.

Expenditure

In 2018–19, total recurrent expenditure on health goods and services was $184.9 billion, of which, $134 billion (72%) was able to be attributed to specific disease groups. Cancer and other neoplasms (tumours) was the disease group with the third greatest health system expenditure and accounted for 8.8% of the $134 billion disease-specific expenditure ($11.7 billion). See Health expenditure.

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on cancer, see:

Visit Cancer for more on this topic.

References

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) (2018) Population projections, Australia, 2017 (base) to 2066, ABS, Australian Government.

Barton M, Jacob S, Shafiq J, Wong K, Thompson S and Hanna T (2014) 'Estimating the demand for radiotherapy from the evidence: a review of changes from 2003 to 2012', Radiotherapy and Oncology, 112:140–144.

WHO (World Health Organization) (2002) National cancer control programmes: policies and managerial guidelines, 2nd edn, Geneva, WHO.